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The Way of Righteousness

The Way of Righteousness

Matthew 21:23-32

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

27 September 2020

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

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

Matthew 21:23-32

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

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

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

For the Word of God in scripture,

For the Word of God within us,

For the Word of God among us,

Thanks be to God.



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

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

The One who met you on the road,

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

and the One to whom we all shall return,

Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The One who met you on the road,

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

and the One to whom we all shall return,

Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

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

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

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

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

            Theologian Stanley Hauerwas writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The One who met you on the road,

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

and the One to whom we all shall return,

Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.



Psalm 84

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

16 August 2020


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Be More . . . Neighborly

To Be More . . . Neighborly

Leviticus 19:1-4, 9-18

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

8 March 2020

            We are to be holy because God is holy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Be More . . . Daring

To Be More . . . Daring

Psalm 84, Isaiah 35

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

1 March 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“God was there,” Louie said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Called to Mission

Called to Mission

I Corinthians 1:10-2:5

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

26 January 2020

            Well, after his warm greetings Paul immediately launches into the first problem facing the Christians in Corinth—their splits.  Factions had emerged, each one holding up a different apostle or teacher as their authority.  And some really obnoxious folks saying, “No, I’m not a follower of any of those people, I follow Christ!” 

            Paul will have none of it.  These divisions are not good for the Christian movement.  They are a power struggle, rending apart the community that should be united, according to commentator Anthony Thiselton.  He points out that the divisions really aren’t about theological disagreement, but about who is in charge.  And that attitude will be deadly for the small congregations just getting started. 

            Thiselton writes that Paul isn’t expecting theological agreement on every point of doctrine, but he is advocating a “noncompetitive attitude that sets aside all hint of power play.”

The congregation needs to be united in a common mission and not competing with one another.

            Fortunately, splits and factions are not an issue for our congregation.  One of the strengths of First Central, I believe, is your capacity to handle disagreement well and to create fair decision-making processes that generally result in consensus and concord.  Maybe the best example was when we remodeled this chancel.  That could be a very touchy subject, as people can be very sensitive to changes in the worship space where they are married, their children are baptized and sing in Christmas programs, and where their loved ones are remembered at their deaths.  And Lord knows it took us a long time to arrive at the best plan—the whole project was seven years in length.  But when the committee tasked with coming up with the plan made this proposal to the congregation, the final vote was unanimous.  I’ve had colleagues tell me I should write a book on how that was accomplished.

            So, the problem Paul identifies is not our particular problem, but it remains a problem for the universal Christian church.  Plenty of congregations and denominations do have factions fighting for power.  And clearly the church universal remains divided into our various denominations, sects, and traditions.  Christians do not speak with a unified voice.  We are not unified around God’s mission in the world.  So working for that unity of mission remains an important project for us as we participate in the wider church and the ecumenical and interfaith movements.

            Paul quickly turns from addressing this particular problem to raising a larger issue about power and also about wisdom.  For clearly one aspect of the divisions in the Corinthian church was that some people thought they were wiser than others.  So the key questions for this passage are “What is power?  What are wisdom?”

            In her book The Wounding and Healing of Desire, the theologian Wendy Farley writes that divine power as revealed in scripture is “mind-bendingly strange.”  That’s because on the one hand there are stories of “outrageous power” combined with stories of “equally outrageous powerlessness.”  She points out that this is maybe the strangest at Advent and Holy Week when “more than at any other time we are exposed to oxymoronic symbols of divine power.”  She sites a couple of hymn lyrics as vivid examples: “Infant holy, infant lowly, for His bed a cattle stall; Oxen lowing, little knowing Christ the babe is Lord of all.”  And “What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss To bear the heavy cross for my soul, for my soul.”  The manger and the cross are not exactly images of triumphant power.  Golden crowns, scepters, thrones, white horses, images like that are what we usually associate with power.  But in the key moments of the Christian story we get a trough where animals feed, shepherds, a teenage mother, and subsequently a donkey, a cross, and an empty tomb.

            But this is the biblical tradition, where power is usually turned on its head—a reversal of our normal values.  I think the key founding text in this tradition is the Song of Hannah, sung by the mother of Samuel when she, who was infertile, gives birth to a son she dedicates to God.  She doesn’t merely sing God’s praises with thanksgiving, she sets up an entire biblical tradition.  Here’s part of her song:

Talk no more so very proudly,
let not arrogance come from your mouth;
for the Lord is a God of knowledge,
and by God actions are weighed.
The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the feeble gird on strength.
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. . . .

The Lord makes poor and makes rich;
God brings low, God also exalts.
The Lord raises up the poor from the dust;
and lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.

            In the great hero stories of the Old Testament this idea is manifested in David—the young shepherd boy, young and least of the children of Jesse, with no claim to power or authority.  And, yet, the boy slays the Philistine giant Goliath and rises to become King, lauded as the greatest of Israel’s kings.

            The Bible lets us know that Jesus grew up in this tradition of the reversal of values, because when Mary, the young teenager herself with no claim to status or authority, becomes pregnant and understands her child as a gift from the Holy Spirit with a divine mission, she too sings a song modeled on Hannah’s, a song we call the Magnficat:

 “My soul magnifies your greatness, O God,
and my spirit rejoices in you my Savior.
For you have looked with favor upon your lowly servant,
and from this day, all generations will call me blessed.
For you, the Mighty One, have done great things for me,

and holy is your name.
Your mercy reaches from age to age for those who fear you.
You have shown strength with your arm;
You have scattered the proud in their conceit;
You have deposed the mighty from their thrones,

and raised lowly to high places.

You have filled the hungry with good things,

While you have sent the rich away empty.

You have come to the aid of your servant Israel--
mindful of your mercy--
the promise you made to our ancestors and their descendants forever.

            True power, then, is not found in the normal status categories.  Divine power often appears in the guise of weakness, in the underdog, in the poor, in the outsider.  Or, as Paul vividly states in this passage in the Letter to the Corinthians, in the cross.

            The cross which most people would view as a stumbling-block and a scandal.  For only the worst criminals are crucified, right?  How could the cross become an image of power? 

            Paul holds up the cross as a sign for this entire tradition of the reversal of values.  All status categories have been undermined.  The aristocratic values are subverted.  By claiming the social stigma, everything is turned upside down.

            Anthony Thiselton writes, “The gospel itself is the proclamation of the cross: folly to many it may be; but effective reality and transforming power it is to those who are on their way to salvation.”

            This gets to the most surprising thing about what Paul writes in this passage of the letter.  All of those standard ways of judging power, wisdom, and success—those are mere folly.  Thiselton writes:

People are wrapped up in illusions of wisdom while living in folly.  The cross now becomes a sifting criterion that exposes the difference between folly lived in an illusion of wisdom and a humble, realistic appropriation of the true wisdom of God, which is effective in leading to salvation.

Reading this passage made me think of my favourite line in Christian hymnody—“In the cross of Christ I glory, towering o’er the wrecks of time.” 

            As I pointed out last week, Corinth was a prosperous, important city.  It was also a new city.  The ancient city had been destroyed by the Romans and a new one established in its place, with new settlers who were military veterans, freed slaves, and immigrants from other places in the Empire.  As such, it was a competitive, entrepreneurial place.  Paul, in the opening of the letter, praises the gifts of the Corinthians that have allowed them to succeed and prosper.

            But now we see the negative side of these gifts when they are not used for Christ’s mission.  Competitiveness can divide and separate people, causing harm.  Success can breed marks of status and pride in those who have achieved.  They can begin to think they are better than other people and judge people by these criteria. 

            But the Gospel knows no status markers.  All of us are equal, standing equally in need of God’s mercy and equally receiving God’s love.  The Christian church is open to everyone.  All people are More Than Welcome here. 

            Yes, the church recognizes that people have different gifts, and some will be more effective leaders than others.  But those leaders must lead as servants.  Their gifts are no more valuable or important than anyone elses. 

            And, Paul reminds them in this letter, most of them really weren’t such hot stuff anyway.  He writes, “not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.  But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose was is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not to reduce to nothing things that are.”

            Damn.  Paul is that friend who tells it like it is, bluntly giving you the truth.  “You weren’t so great, you know.”  And, to be fair, he says the same about himself, you notice.

            But Paul doesn’t leave them in this lowly state.  He also reminds them that they have been made great.  Great because God has filled them with God’s love and grace and because of that they now have power, they now have wisdom, they now have glory.  Not because of their personal talents and achievements, but because they are beloved children of God.  And now their talents can be most effective, not at building themselves up or distinguishing them from others, but most effective when used as part of God’s mission in the world, to create a new beloved community, to bring about more peace, justice, kindness, and love.

            For the power and wisdom they’ve received from God is the true power, the true wisdom.  And it’s effective.  Effective for their transformation and salvation, but also effective in dealing with reality.  Because God has actually designed the world to work this way.  And they will be working with the grain of world instead of against the grain. 

            So, our call is not to be great by typical human standards.  Our call is to be great by God’s standards.  To use the gifts we have for God’s mission in the world.  And here are some of the signs that we are doing that well—we work for unity, not division; we uphold the equality and dignity of all people, not creating categories of distinction; our skills and knowledge are used in service of the common good, not just to puff ourselves up; we don’t boast, instead we shine our glory upon God and one another. 

            When we do those things, then God’s power will effective work in us to change the world.  That is our mission, to what we have been called.