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Amazing Things

Amazing Things

Luke 24:1-12

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

21 April 2019

 

            When our foremothers and forefathers a century ago, in the midst of the First World War, designed this worship space, they chose English Gothic Revival instead of the style more traditional for Congregationalists--New England Meeting House.  English Gothic Revival, with these massive wooden beams rising to the sky and these brilliant stained glass windows behind the choir, both medieval and modern in their dancing colors.  In 1947 our Aeolian-Skinner organ was installed with a premier concert by the greatest organist of his time, the Frenchman Marcel Dupre.

            As we watched the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris burn on Monday, it wasn’t a stretch to see how our worship life was deeply connected to that glorious building.  For it helped to pioneer our architectural language, our use of color and light, even our music.  Western polyphonic music began in that building, inspiring what we sing here every week to the glory of God.

            And so we watched the destruction not of some distant building, but a grandmother and sister of this space we all cherish.

 

            And what a catastrophe it was.  An 850 year old building, that took two hundred years to construct, almost destroyed in an hour and a half.  Reports say that the building came within 15-30 minutes of utter destruction, that if hundreds of firefighters had not risked their lives to stop the flames spreading into the north tower, then the entire structure could have collapsed.

            According to an article in The Guardian, “On French television, a historian of religion, Jean-François Colosimo, described the scene as ‘images of the end of the world.’ The fire, he said, seemed to communicate ‘the extreme fragility of our situation.’”

            The next day Katie Miller read for me a tweet she had seen, that this destruction was a harbinger of what we will experience throughout this century as ancient structures, including glaciers, forests, and islands, will be destroyed rapidly before our eyes.

            John Pavlovitz blogged, “Watching the flames swallowing up such a universally beloved testament to the staggering creativity that humanity is capable of, we recognize how tethered to each other we are, how fragile and fleeting everything here is—and how starved for beauty we all are these days.”

            So many read deeper meanings into what we were watching.

            One of the glories of our modern age is the shared, global experience, whether that be sharing in wonder like watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon, or sharing in celebration like on New Year’s Eve 1999, or sharing in terror as we did on September 11, 2001.  Monday was another of those shared global experiences, with people all over the world watching together, remembering, and grieving. 

            The art critic Jonathan Jones wrote of the cathedral,

 

It is the human plenitude, the sense of hundreds of anonymous masons working in humble collectivism, and thousands of people across time sharing our awe for what they built, that gives Notre Dame its mystique. A great cathedral is a vast living organism. It’s like being inside a whale, the vaulting a sublime rib cage above you. Unlike a symmetrical classical building a gothic cathedral is not an image of order but living disorder where flying buttresses sprout, mighty columns soar, lofty galleries conceal prayers and plotters.

 

            “It is the human plenitude.” 

Pavlovitz wrote, “It isn’t just wood and glass and concrete giving way today, it is a sustained wound to our shared humanity—one we would do well to remember.”  He then continued:

 

There is nothing we do or create or feel or breathe individually or collectively, that doesn’t touch the rest of us. The best of our faith traditions, the greatest of our Constitutions, the most profound expressions of our creativity, and our most noble personal convictions tell us that we are inextricably bound together.

 

            And it was lost on no one that this occurred on the Monday of Holy Week. The most sacred time of the year for Christians, the busiest week for any Christian worship space.  I learned the news on Monday while sitting with Bob Vassell at Ellie Bucknam’s funeral lunch.  This congregation had just mourned a woman who radiated joy and delight and who contributed to this congregation for more than fifty years. 

Over the last few weeks the griefs have been never ending.  Ellie’s was the third funeral for a church member in four days.  Other church members had received awful medical news.  Dear friends of mine experienced the suicide of a 13-year-old grandson.  Another church member was lingering near death this weekend, and then this morning’s news of the horrendous attacks in Sri Lanka.

            Here we were, heading toward Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, and I always try to emphasize that these days not only celebrate an ancient event, but they are in tune with human emotion and psychology—that we all have Good Fridays in our lives.  And it felt to me as if I was surrounded by Good Friday experiences this year, fearing that I might be overcome.

            And the devastated cathedral was one more worldwide grief. 

 

            And yet. 

            And yet, Jesus proclaims all things new.  Christ rises again, the firstborn of a new creation.  When Peter sees the empty tomb, we are told “he went home, amazed at what had happened.”

            And yet, there are amazing things.

            Tuesday was beautiful.  Warm and sunny with clear skies.  As I walked to and from lunch I saw trees leafing and flowers blooming.  A clump of dandelions surprised and delighted me, a hopeful sign that winter had ended.

            This morning for our sunrise service we gathered in a cemetery in the dark and lit a flame and sang about the light having risen again.  The sun wasn’t up yet.  And that was the point.  We are people who celebrate the new light, even when it’s darkest.  That is the essence of our Easter faith.

            On that beautiful, warm Tuesday as I walked to lunch, I looked to see the latest news—the rose windows were spared, the great organ didn’t burn, though it was damaged by smoke and water, the catastrophe was not as catastrophic as it could be.  So, there will be a resurrection.

            Jonathan Jones wrote

 

A cathedral can endure the loss of its stained glass and other fineries . . . .  It’s precisely this endurance that makes medieval architecture so special. Almost a thousand years after its original creation Notre Dame still speaks to us. Like cave paintings, it connects us with some primal aesthetic urge. Now our time faces a challenge. . . . If we can reawaken the creativity this building embodies it will be a great moment of artistic renewal . . .

 

            Pavlovitz drew a broader lesson,

 

We all belong to one another.  The more we remember that, the more beauty we will make together in this place.  And the world needs beauty now more than ever.

 

            Happy Easter to you! 

            Christ is risen!  Alleluia!

            Alleluia!  Amen!

 

           


Enter the Gate

Enter the Gate

Psalm 118:19-29

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

14 April 2019

 

You might have noticed that Luke’s version of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem is a little different from the other gospels.  No children singing.  No shouts of “Hosanna.”  No waving palm branches. 

But other features are there—the rejoicing crowds, Jesus riding a humble beast, the street theatre protest that generates opposition from the authorities.

Luke has Jesus respond to the latter with the phrase, “I tell you, if these [people] were silent, the stones would shout out.”  We often hear that as an affirmative image—even creation will rejoice at the coming of the Messiah.  But that may not be the meaning here.  When stones shout, it is usually because they are tumbling in tumult.  We might think of the destruction in the wake of an earthquake.  The meaning here is more likely, “If you try to silence these people, then you will bring judgment down upon you.”  A far more sobering image and one that reminds us that today’s rejoicing has sinister undertones that will play out over the week ahead.

 

Luke, like the others who told this story, draws upon the celebratory words of Old Testament processionals.  In this case, Psalm 118 which I just read.

Psalm 118 is likely an “entrance liturgy,” according to Walter Brueggemann.  Used to celebrate a “royal victory in battle.”  We are to imagine that the people have sung this Psalm before as part of a public event welcoming home triumphant warriors.  It’s the song of a military victory parade.

The psalm has a clear structure.  It opens with a summons to the community to gather in thanksgiving to God. 

Then, it narrates the story of God’s deliverance.  The people are in distress, they are surrounded by wicked nations intent on harming them.  They have confined us and are buzzing about like bees, stinging us like poisonous thorns.  But there is no need to fear—in the midst of our distress, God is with us, God whose love is steadfast and endures forever.  God will rescue us, has rescued us, and brought us to a broad place where we might find refuge and live.

Finally, it is the time to celebrate the rescue, with singing and a parade.  Give thanks to God, whose love is steadfast and endures forever.

 

Psalm 118 is the last of six Hallel psalms, used by the Hebrew people as part of the Passover celebration.  So they had long been lifted from their original context in a military parade and used around the festival table to celebrate God’s rescue of the people from evil and destruction.  According to scholar J. C. McCann, these psalms “offer a perspective from which to face the reality of continuing oppression: recollection of God’s past activity as a basis for petition and grateful trust in God’s future activity on behalf of the people.”

Walter Brueggemann elaborates on this idea.  The voice speaking in the psalm “was being strangled and constricted in distress” but has been delivered by God into a broad place where they can breathe.  Brueggemann writes, “Fear can be a powerful reality, but refuge in God can bring hope, even in the face of such trauma.”

One of the central messages in the Biblical tradition is “do not fear.”  And here, once again, is that same message.  In the midst of distress and trauma, don’t be ruled by fear.  Take courage.  Be ruled instead by faith in God’s steadfast love that endures forever.  Just as God has rescued God’s people in the past, God will rescue us.  We can look forward in hope to a time of rejoicing, a grand celebration.

 

So, when Luke uses Psalm 118 to tell his story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, all of these layers of meaning come into the story.  First the obvious parallel—a parade, a triumphal entry, to celebrate God’s deliverance of the people.  Making Jesus appear like a royal figure in the Biblical tradition, a fulfillment of ancient expectations and longings. 

Also, the parallel with Passover.  The people join together in an ancient religious festival to celebrate God’s deliverance.  Jesus participating in this idea, creating it anew. 

The Passover celebrates the Exodus, so Jesus is a new Moses, leading the newly delivered people on a new Exodus, forming a new people who will renew the covenant with God.

And the meaning can also be stretched that Jesus is the new Passover lamb, the sacrifice who will make the deliverance possible.  Though that implication awaits a later chapter in the story of this week.

Luke’s use of Psalm 118 also carries with it the deeper pastoral message that Walter Brueggemann locates in Psalm 118—do not fear.  Here at the start of a week that will include threat and danger, betrayal and arrest, persecution and torture, death and uncertainty, Luke is reminding us of this central biblical message—don’t be ruled by fear.  Yes, there are dark nights of the soul.  Yes, we experience Good Fridays in our lives.  But even in these darkest and most dangerous of moments, don’t be overcome by fear. 

For just as the Psalmist has written—God’s love is steadfast and endures forever.  God will rescue us.  We will celebrate in song “This is the day the Lord has made.”

In other words, here, before Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, Luke is hinting that Easter will come.

 

This year for Lent we have invited you to take a sojourn—not to go on a spiritual journey, but to explore the spiritual in your daily lives.  I have asked you to be attentive to the ordinary ways that you connect to God.

This has been a “pilgrimage in place” to borrow a phrase from a clergy friend of mine.  And that most definitely describes these final days before Easter.  Today we begin Holy Week.  And though the first few days don’t have many activities, they can be a time to begin to focus our attention on what we need to do this week.

I am hopeful that this year you will choose to set aside some of your time to join in recognizing these days.  You might do this privately through your own devotional and spiritual practices.  In fact you should do that.  Whether it is reading the stories in the Gospel, going on a long walk to meditate, listening to Mozart’s Requiem, Handel’s Messiah, or the soundtrack of Jesus Christ Superstar, or one of my favourite Holy  Saturday activities—rereading The Last Battle by C. S. Lewis.  I hope you will engage in some special spiritual practice this week that draws you into the emotional and psychological import of the days ahead.

I also invite you to join us in worship, as we will explore these emotions together.  The celebration and joy of Easter only authentically come after the dark night of the soul of Good Friday and the experience of communion and betrayal of that communion on Maundy Thursday. 

In Ancient-Future Time, Robert Webber writes,

These are days to be set aside to enter into a worship that is the source of our entire spirituality, a moment in time that defines all time for Christians, a moment in time that is the very sum and substance of our spirituality for every season, every week, every Sunday, and every moment of every day.

Now, we don’t stop everything else we do in order to experience these holy days; they occur in the midst of our obligations to job and family.  Which is important.  That reminds us that these emotions and experiences occur in the midst of our routines, in our daily lives as human beings.  They are part of the human condition. 

This isn’t just a story we read.  It is a story we participate in.  The people march in a parade to symbolize their deliverance.  They join in an ancient festival meal that reminds them that they too are God’s people, experiencing God’s love.  The sing as part of Jesus’s ride into Jerusalem.  And we too act out the story—we wave the palm branches, sing “Hosanna,” process in together.  Every layer of this story is about seeing ourselves in the story, re-enacting it in our lives. 

Why?  Because it is the human story.

Today, by acting out the story once again, may we will feel deeply within our own psyches the great promise—God’s love is steadfast and endures forever.  So do not fear.  Have faith, rejoice, and give thanks.


Spark Joy

Spark Joy

Psalm 126

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

7 April 2019

 

 

            A recent article on the website Ministry Matters reflected on all the recent tragedies in the news and came to this realization, “Too often there is neither meaning nor order nor justice in that chunk of cancerous tissue, that patch of ice, or piece of faulty wiring. Everything can just… happen.”

            From this realization the author pivoted to our current worship season,

 

Lent is the right time to sit with these darker truths.  This is the time to reflect on our limitations and to remind ourselves that none of us is immune to the universe.  We are all one errant organ, limb, or joint away from losing that sense of freedom in our own bodies, and even the fittest of us inhabits a faulty body, designed to wear out and perish.  From dust we were made.

 

            I’ve been preaching from the liturgical texts assigned for this season, and one thing has surprised me this year—how many of them speak of joy.  This is a solemn season, when we do often examine ourselves, explore darker truths, confess our sins, strive to overcome our weaknesses, and reflect upon suffering and evil, particularly as Good Friday approaches.

            But our worship this year hasn’t gotten very far into that territory.  We’ve been focused on the idea of a sojourn—taking a rest in the midst of our busy lives, to be attentive to the spirituality of our ordinary routines.

            And time and again the scripture we have preached from every week has talked about joy.  Including this one which encourages us to laugh and to shout joyfully.  This Psalm, like all the other readings, also acknowledges the dark truths—the suffering, the pain, the exile, the hardship, the loss of fortune, the wickedness and violence that surround us, the tears. 

            But this text, like the others for this season, also reminds us that God is faithful to God’s promises.  Our fortunes will be restored.  We will come home again and with abundance we will rejoice.

            So what in your daily lives brings you joy and connects you to God?

 

            At the beginning of January my social media feeds were full of comments about the Netflix series Tidying Up with Marie Kondo.  The show was a follow-up from her 2014 bestselling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.  There were also plenty of articles, including in religious newsletters and magazines, on how Marie Kondo’s cleaning and organizational methods resonated with spiritual practices.  She had clearly connected with some social need, as Thrift Shops around the country began to report increased donations from the people decluttering after watching the show.

            One article I read said, “[Marie] Kondo talks about how tidying orders the mind, and I’d argue that’s a spiritual practice — an internal ordering based on priorities, health, and ethical considerations. It frees up space to think about things that are truly important to us.”

            In my Ash Wednesday sermon I made this connection between the popular TV show and our worship season:

 

Lent is a season of personal examination.  A traditional Lent includes the activities of fasting, eliminating, purging, confessing, facing our own mortality.  So, you could understand Lent as a season of spiritual tidying up.      

 

            The most recognizable phrase from Marie Kondo’s books and television show is “Spark joy.”  The phrase has now become so common it’s also used as a mocking joke.

            For Kondo, it is the essence of her method for tidying up.  When you are cleaning, rather than looking for what to eliminate from all the accumulated clutter of our lives, we should focus on what we want to keep in the future.  Here’s what she writes in her book:

 

I had been so focused on what to discard, on attaching the unwanted obstacles around me, that I had forgotten to cherish the things that I loved, the things I wanted to keep.  Through this experience I came to the conclusion that the best way to choose what to keep and what to throw away is to take each item in one’s hand and ask: “Does this spark joy?”  If it does, keep it.  If not, dispose of it.

 

            This is her simple method.  We should rid our lives of the things that no longer spark joy.  “Keep only those things that speak to your heart,” she writes.  “Then take the plunge and discard all the rest.”

            And she entices with this thought, “Now imagine yourself living in a space that contains only things that spark joy.  Isn’t this the lifestyle you dream of?”

 

            Like I said, this idea has now moved into the realm of parody and joking.  But there is something to this idea, I believe.

            I believe it because scripture tells us again and again that God intends us for joy.  God wants us to rejoice, to be happy, to delight in the good things God has given us.

            So, is there anything to this method.  Can you examine the things in your life, and I don’t just mean your possessions, your accumulated clutter.  I mean also your ideas, values, behaviors, beliefs, etc.  Can you examine those with this question of what sparks joy?

            Now, I know that ridding ourselves of irritability, anxiety, fear, guilt, shame, weakness, vice, or sin is not as easy as getting rid of old clothes or half-used shampoo bottles.  Those are often lifetime projects that require moral discipline, spiritual direction, character formation, and often therapeutic assistance. 

            But maybe a way to begin is to acknowledge this—that we have personal traits that are holding us back from the joyful life God has intended for us.

            And a second step might be to then examine our lives for what does bring us joy.  And then to develop those things, to focus on them.

            So what in your daily lives brings you joy and connects you to God?

 

            Another article that pointed out the spirituality of Marie Kondo’s Tidying Up concluded:

 

Decluttering space and our minds, learning to hope in visualizing optimistic possibilities, ritually connecting with our things and with people around us, and surrounding ourselves with things, people, and events that spark our joy can profoundly change the quality of our lives. Even when times are tough, these practices help us embrace the best in life and help us become healthier humans.

 

            In the days that remain to our Lenten season, I invite you be attentive to what sparks joy for you.

            Let me close with my favorite e e cummings poem:

 

i thank You God for most this amazing

day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees

and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything

which is natural which is infinite which is yes

 

(i who have died am alive again today,

and this is the sun's birthday; this is the birth

day of life and love and wings and of the gay

great happening illimitably earth)

 

how should tasting touching hearing seeing

breathing any-lifted from the no

of all nothing-human merely being

doubt unimaginable You?

 

(now the ears of my ears awake and

now the eyes of my eyes are opened)


Praying Daily

Praying Daily

Psalm 32

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

31 March 2019

 

 

            One of my favourite websites is Aeon: A World of Ideas, where scholars post accessible articles in a wide variety of fields, including my own, philosophy.  Back in January an article was posted entitled “Daily Grace” about the importance of daily rituals.  That was fortuitous, because at the time I was already planning this Lenten season of worship, wherein we have focused on the spirituality of our daily lives.

            The article, by Jay Griffiths, begins by describing her encounter with a particular daily ritual in Bali, where women create offerings called canang sari out of coconut leaves, flowers, and prayer and that these offerings are left all over the place, depending on what the prayer is about.  Griffiths writes that in Bali, she was “was wonderstruck by the ubiquity of ritual.”

            Her experience in Bali compelled her to consider the daily rituals that appear in various cultures, such that she concluded, “Tiny, everyday rituals are a hand-crafted prayer to domestic order, beckoning the divine to step inside a moment.”

 

            When we began Lent three weeks ago, I invited you to join in a sojourn—a rest from the busyness of our lives.  But instead of going on a retreat, we were going to take this rest in the midst of our ordinary lives.  One way I invited you to do that was to be attentive to the ways you connect to God every day.  What is the spirituality you discover in your daily routines?

            I hope that by now you’ve paid attention and identified some of these.

            Maybe some of them are daily rituals you perform.  According to Jay Griffiths, these daily rituals help to create an internal order before we face the stresses of the day.  She writes, “Rituals work – even for people who say they do not believe in them. Rituals alleviate grief, reduce anxiety and increase confidence. Rituals also aid self-control.”

            Part of what impresses Griffiths so is that something as little and apparently slight as our daily rituals—a thank you, giving flowers, cooking rice—can hold such spiritual and psychological weight. 

            She concludes her article:

 

The sweet paradox of small daily rituals is that the ordinary is intensified into the sacred through the numinousness of the absolutely commonplace, an illustration of immanent divinity, demonstrating that all it takes to find cascades of enchantment is a tender attention in which the natural living world is blessed by the psyche, and the psyche by the natural world.  Ritual sculpts, shapes and polishes the spirit in a fineness of mind, the hearth of the heart tended and made more tender by the delicate touch of something little more than a thank you.  So the slightest of ritual magic, turning on a breath, might open doorways on to a future; and life might be protected by a petal and the holiness of prayers.

 

            Tender attention to the living world, even in these small ways, might be powerful enough to enchant us, fill our lives with beauty and wonder, and bring order to our chaos.

 

            Today’s psalm proclaims that happiness and joy come to those who pray.

            In times of distress, described by this psalm as “the rush of mighty waters,” we reach out to God in prayer trusting that God is our protector, preserving us from trouble and surrounding us with “glad cries of deliverance.”

            How do we pray to God then?  Interestingly, this psalm mentions a number of different ways we pray.  We confess our sins.  We keep silence.  Sometimes we groan in pain.  We petition God, asking for help and protection.  We listen and learn, receiving instruction and guidance.  And we rejoice, giving praise and thanks to God.  And, of course, there are other methods of praying.

            The takeaway from this psalm is that we should be praying daily.  No matter what our need or what type of prayer our current situation requires, we should be opening ourselves to God.

            One of my recent delights as a parent has been the way Sebastian has embraced prayer.  A beautiful moment occurred this week.  Michael invited the new Associate Conference Minister, Darrell Goodwin, over for dinner, as Michael and he are already friends from serving on the United Church of Christ Board of Directors together.  When we sat down to the table, before we could eat, Sebastian asked me to pray and reached out to Darrell to hold his hand, indicating that we all need to hold hands around the table.  And a little child shall lead them.

            The psalmist declares that if we do pray to God, then we will perceive our help and protection; we will experience forgiveness; our trust in God will develop; we will learn and gain understanding; we will be surrounded by love; and therefore we will be happy, shouting for joy.  Those are all pretty good things.  I want those every day—love, joy, understanding, trust, forgiveness, deliverance. 

           

            So, the wisdom of the ancient poet aligns with this recent article on the psychological importance of our small daily rituals.  Those daily practices, such as prayer, bring order to our chaos, filling our lives with beauty, joy, and wonder.

            In the weeks of Lent that remain, be attentive to your daily rituals—the ordinary things that connect you to God. 

And make prayer a part of every day.  Prayer can be short and simple, it can be silent, with no words, it can even be an gentle thank you.  Each day take a moment to open yourself to God.