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Good, Hard Lessons

Good, Hard Lessons

Luke 16:1-13

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

18 September 2022

            “This is one of the strangest and most difficult of Jesus’ parables.”  So writes Brandon Scott, one of the foremost authorities on the parables.  As you listened I’m sure you thought it sounded weird.  Just know that the scholars and commentators feel the same.

            Amy-Jill Levine, that other scholar of the parables whom I like to draw upon, reminds us that the stories Jesus tells are often supposed to be disturbing.  And that we can get too lost in trying to find their “meaning.”  Instead, she asks us to “allow ourselves to be open to various interpretations” because then the parables can become tools “for good, hard lessons learned with a sense of playfulness.”

            With a playful attitude then, let’s try to unpack this story Jesus told.  Then we’ll try to make it mean something for us today.

            Brandon Scott says we run into problems with this parable when we make two interpretative mistakes at the beginning.  First, we have a tendency to turn parables into allegories and in this case that means we try to make the master into God.  But, clearly, that doesn’t work.  Which is one reason we are uncomfortable.  So, give up the notion of trying to make this allegory, trying to make it tell us something about God.

            The second mistake we make is reading our own capitalist economic system into the story.  That wasn’t the economic system of Jesus and his compatriots.  They existed in a very different system built upon patronage.  So, as Brandon Scott writes, “Capitalist assumptions obscure the social structure implied by the parable.”

            What social and economic system, then, is the story operating in? 

            Scott first points out some facts about the characters in the story.  These are men of wealth.  Wealth far in excess of anything the average person listening to the story would be familiar with.  The debts are also very large debts.  The characters can read and write, also not widespread in the time period.  These, then, are all wealthy elites and the person listening would have understood it as such.  This is a story, then, about how wealthy elites treat and mistreat one another.

            Now, the average listener would have been familiar with debts.  Usury was forbidden by the religious economic laws of Jesus’ time, but even that society had found ways around the laws and customs.

            And as a result, we know from historical sources, that many common landowners had lost their property to the wealthy because they were unable to pay their debts.  Many people who had been self-sustaining farmers had fallen to become tenant farmers.  Families that had once sustained themselves were now peasants.  Some were even sold into slavery.  The burdens of debt were massive in first century Palestine, and a wealthy elite had benefited from the system.  Brandon Scott reminds us, “The request to ‘forgive us our debts’ in the Lord’s Prayer is not an idle spiritual request, but a peasant’s plea of desperation.”

            The manager, then, in this story, seems to be the property manager for the truly rich guy who owns a lot and is gaining even more property because of these exorbitant debts.  The master might even be an absentee landlord, and the manager the one doing the real work of overseeing the properties and accounts. 

            But he isn’t an employee as we understand it in our current system.  The master would be his patron, and he would be a client.  Any power, authority, or wealth the manager has is because he is in the service of the master.  If the master dismisses him, the manager can’t simply go get another managerial job elsewhere, he has lost his patron.  And as the manager tells us in the story, if he loses his status, he fears he’ll be reduced to begging or digging in the mines.

            Patronage systems work by doing the bidding of those above you in the hierarchy.  You don’t have much freedom or agency unless you are on the top of the social pyramid. 

            So, what is it that the manager does when he loses his position?  He goes to the various folks who owe the master money, who haven’t yet heard that he’s been fired, and he reduces their debts to the master.  This is a way of getting back at the master, for the master will now lose his profits, and it is a way of currying favor with other potential patrons who might support this shrewd manager who saved them money.

            Where the story surprises both its original listeners and us, is that the logical outcome would be for the master to become furious when he learns of this scheme.  Instead, in the story Jesus told, the master praises the manager for his shrewdness.  And then Luke adds those strange comments to the end of the story.

            Brandon Scott writes that this ending makes it difficult for any of us to make sense of the story and what Jesus meant.  He then asks us to consider, “what if the strategy of the parable teller is to frustrate our efforts to fit it together, to make sense of it, to relieve its tension?”  Amy-Jill Levine would say that any meaning of the story slips away from us, inviting us to use our imaginations and engage playfully in meaning-making ourselves.  And in that process maybe learn some good, hard lessons.

            From my study and reading of this parable over the years as a pastor and teacher and simply as a faithful reader of the Bible, I’ve come to a way I understand it, that I offer to you today.

            Part of what’s going on here is that Jesus is making fun of the wealthy elites and the way they treat each other.  But he’s doing more than that.  If that alone were the goal, then he’d end the tale in the predictable fashion.  Instead, Jesus surprises the listeners with his ending.

            Which invites us to think about the entire social-economic system.  I think his original listeners were able to walk away puzzling about how strange and weird the patronage economy of their time was.  And in that puzzling, maybe begin to engage in criticism and imagination of something better.  What might that something better be?

            The clue is contained in the story itself.  What puzzles us is a strange act of grace.  Of unmerited, undeserved favor.  Power, debts, greed, shrewdness—those don’t surprise us.  What surprises is the strange, maybe even foolish, act of grace that ends the story.

            Maybe Jesus’ listeners then began to ponder—what would a social and economic system built around grace look like?

            One reason I think this is the direction we can head in listening to Jesus’ story, is that so many of the other stories he told seem to point in the same direction.  Many of the parables he tells about rich men, property managers, debts, money, income, etc. have really surprising outcomes.  But grace, as opposed to merit, desert, or what one has earned, seems to be a common theme.

            What then are we supposed to do with this story today then?  Clearly we don’t operate in a patronage socio-economic system.  We aren’t, generally, peasants losing our land to greedy landlords. 

            There’s an old adage that a sermon is best when it models the form of the story you are preaching.  Earlier this week I realized that the best way to approach this text, then, would be to craft my own parable that exposes absurdities in our own socio-economic system and invites us to imagine alternatives.  But I don’t think I’m that gifted of a story-teller.  Especially to write something so clever in just a few days.  After all, I’m not Jesus.

            But I do think that Jesus’ story can invite us to use our imaginations to think about how absurd our socio-economic system is.  Maybe reading about the disputes between Elon Musk and Twitter are a good example—elites treating each other poorly.  I invite you to think of your own examples.

            Because even if our economic system is an improvement upon the patronage and debt system of first century Palestine, I think we can all agree that our current system is clearly not an expression of the kingdom of God.

            There remains too much inequality, too much injustice, too much greed and exploitation.  It could be fairer, with more grace and generosity and kindness.

            This summer on my sabbatical I read a number of books on climate change.  Not about how the climate is changing, as that has become obvious, but more about what we can and should still do if we are to live resiliently and faithfully in this time of world history. 

            In one of those books, by the British theologian Timothy Gorringe titled The World Made Otherwise: Sustaining Humanity in a Threatened World, he has a chapter entitled “Economics as if the Planet Mattered.”  Because, of course, it does.  The planet does matter.  But our current system isn’t very good at taking that to account. 

            He wants to return to the most basic sense of the word “economy,” which in its Greek origin means “household management.”  What do we need to do to properly manage our household?  What all is included in the household?  Does our circle of concern expand to all creation?

Gorringe invites us to consider the question “What is it that people need in order to live well?”  That seems like a key consideration for us as we try to live in this time as faithful followers of Jesus.

            Now, Jesus didn’t tell his story and then lay out a set of economic policies to be implemented.  And I’m not either today. 

            Instead, I believe Jesus wanted his faithful followers to start asking themselves such questions.  To begin criticizing what was wrong about the system they lived in.  To playfully imagine alternatives.  And then to start trying them out.  Make those changes in their own lives that they could make in order to further the values of a better, more gracious, more generous world. 

And I think that’s what Jesus wants for us, his faithful disciples today.  To imagine a better world.  And to do what we can in our daily activities to make a better world—kinder, more loving, more gracious.  A world where everyone and everything can live well.  Those are the good, hard lessons I believe we can take from this very strange story that Jesus told.



Matthew 18:1-5

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

22 May 2022

            Back in February of 2012, a full decade ago now, I traveled to the Claremont School o Religion in Claremont, California  for a conference about how folks who were imagining and embodying new ways of being church for the 21st century might engage in conversation with Process theology.  At the conference I led a breakout session entitled “Blogging, Social Networking, and Process: Adventures in Ministry.” 

In the early years of my ministry, I was often a pioneer, engaging new internet communication tools to connect with people and carry out ministry.  For example, I remember the days of using AOL instant messenger to chat with my youth.

            In my breakout session, I highlighted these positive for the church’s use of the new technologies:

  • The internet was Open-ended, adventurous, and egalitarian.
  • You could easily share your stories, reflect upon them, and watch them develop over time.  And this was true both as an individual and in telling the story of the church community.
  • I said we were able to be present with people, because we were understanding that presence is not limited to physical location.

I felt that these new technologies presented opportunities to advance theological and ministry goals.  My model of pastoral leadership has always been to use persuasive power through the presentation of possibilities to excite people's sense of adventure, so that through their free agency, together we will choose how to move forward.  I felt these new technologies enabled and expanded that.

            My presentation also talked about some of the concerns raised by these new technologies:

  • The danger of creating a community within the community that leaves out those not engaged in social media or who are not tech savvy
  • Wondering whether social media can violate our ministerial boundaries or whether it actually revealed that the ways we’d previously understood this was a mistaken notion, and that these new technologies were compelling ministers to live more openly without a facade or division between our private and professional lives?
  • And what about privacy anyway? 
  • And, presciently to this worship series we are currently engaged in, a decade ago in that presentation I talked about the challenge of keeping up with all of the constant changes in technology and wondered whether keeping up would be a distraction from other, important aspects of ministry?

Of course over the ensuing decade, with all we now know about social media and mobile technologies, the concerns often seem to outweigh the strengths.  I wasn’t sure what I thought anymore about those ideas from my presentation a decade ago.  Plus, the more I prepared for this worship series--about how the effort to keep up with the ever-accelerating pace of change is negatively affecting us spiritually--the more anxious I became.  Clearly one aspect of the Time Fatigue we’ve been focused on this month in worship is the role that the internet, social media, and mobile devices has played in changing everything about our lives.

Given my enthusiasm, optimism, and hearty embrace of new technologies a decade ago, this spring I jumped at reading a new book The Internet is Not What You Think It Is: A History, A Philosophy, A Warning by Justin E. H. Smith.  Smith is a very insightful philosopher who teaches at the University of Paris. 

To my relief, on page 2 of his book, Smith affirmed my excitement of a decade ago.  He states, “As recently as ten or fifteen years ago, one could still sincerely hope that the internet might help ‘to bring people together and to strengthen the social fabric.’” 

According to Smith, the positive goals for the internet are rooted in three centuries of utopian dreams and technological and scientific achievements.  Those positive dreams are actually deeply rooted in our human nature and our hopes for the human future. 

Yes, in the last decade the internet has turned in a negative direction, but he keeps pointing out that it didn’t have to end up that way, and doesn’t have to remain that way.  We can shape it in that more utopian direction if we so desire and so act. 

How do these negative developments connect to the spiritual crisis we’ve been discussing the last few weeks?  Smith identifies four new problems with the internet that have become apparent in the last few years.

First, there exists a new form of exploitation.  Whereas once human labor might have been exploited by others for economic gain, now our very selves, our lives are the resource being exploited. 

Second, is that this new economy is an extractive one, but not in the sense of material resources, rather, it extracts our attention.  Smith writes that “the largest industry in the world now is quite literally the attention-seeking industry.”  Companies work to gain and keep our attention, using tools we have learned are actually addictive and compulsory.  He writes:

Most of our passions and frustrations, personal bonds and enmities, responsibilities and addictions, are now concentrated into our digital screens, along with our mundane work and daily errands, our bill-paying and our income tax spreadsheets.  It is not just that we have a device that is capable of doing several things, but that this device has largely swallowed up many of the things we used to do and transformed these things into various instances of that device’s universal imposition of itself.

            And this focusing our attention has moral implications.  It robs us of time and attention that should be focused on other things, particularly people.  This, he believes, has impacts on our empathy.  How often have you found yourself immersed in your phone when you should be interacting with the people, the nature, the things around you?  We’ve all done it to some degree. 

            The third new problem has already been hinted at—so much of our lives are not concentrated in a single device.  This was supposed to be about utility and efficiency and freeing us up.  And there is so much about the new technology that does make life easier.  But do we feel freed up from drudgery for more important things?  Or do we feel enmeshed in even more drudgery?

            The fourth problem is that “human beings are increasingly perceived and understood as sets of data points.”  This is how we are viewed by the big data companies.  And Smith believes it is inevitable that this type of thinking will permeate through every other aspect of our culture, and we will all be viewed as data points in algorithms instead of full human persons.  Remember what I said last week about the theological importance of personhood.

            So Smith warns that we have ended up in a dangerous place with unhealthy relationships to our new technologies.  But he reminds us that it didn’t have to be this way.  However, he thinks we can’t just stop, quit, or go back.  There are good things and benefits to these technologies.  As a society, we could make the choices and take the steps to bend the internet back towards those utopian hopes of humanity.

            But, meanwhile, we live with this vital but dangerous tool that is a major culprit in our time fatigue and our growing sense of disorientation, disconnection, anxiety, and even depression.  All the topics we’ve been exploring the last four weeks in worship.

            So I return to the theologian Andrew Root’s quote that I used in my first sermon of this series to clarify our current spiritual crisis:

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

            Andrew Root, then, turns to this gospel story in Matthew 18 to help us understand how God is calling us to something different and better that transcends and heals our time fatigue.  Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

            Root draws a typical preacher’s three lessons from this passage.  First, it is “a direct call to humility.”  To quit comparing ourselves to others.  To quit focusing only on ourselves.  To open ourselves to other people.  To admit that we need other people.  To be vulnerable.

            Second, we are invited by Jesus into real relationships with real persons, giving of ourselves, receiving from the other.  And in this we experience Jesus.  Recall everything I said about loving relationships with persons in last week’s sermon.

            And third, Jesus calls us to be transformed.  To become like children.  Children are attentive to the world and therefore experience curiosity, wonder, delight, and affection.  They aren’t yet caught up in the ever-increasing rate of change in our social lives.  They aren’t yet part of the rat race.  Instead, their lives are full of the resonance we desire.  They become our mentors as we learn how to live a better life, how to experience time for everything.

            I ordered and started reading Andrew Root’s book because I thought it was going to be about what churches needed to do in our ministries in the twenty-first century.  Afterall, he’s a youth ministry professor at Princeton whose earlier work has focused on such things.  I was thoroughly surprised by the rich and revealing intellectual and theological creativity as he analyzed and discussed the underlying spiritual crises that churches and church people encounter.  Reading the book on my monastic retreat last December was an epiphany that led to fertile study and exploration of these themes over the last six months.

            Andrew Root does get to the practical things that the church needs to do to minister faithfully and effectively spiritual crisis.  What is the antidote to our time fatigue?  His answer-- to care for children. 

            Because to focus on children is to escape the focus on our current time and to take a long view.  As I said a few weeks ago, the youngest among us will live for another century or more.  What we do for them now—how we shape them and educate them and care for and love them will have lasting impacts long, long after most of us are gone.  And if they also grow up caring for children and furthering those lessons, the time horizon for our ministry lifts beyond even one century.

            To care for our children also means we are drawn into relationships of wonder, affection, and delight, relationships of resonance and fullness, the obvious antidote to the experience of alienation, time fatigue, and spiritual crisis.

            And Andrew Root believes that any congregational community which prioritizes caring for children is a congregation that will be shaped by humility, vulnerability, giving and receiving, transformation, and thus we will learn to prioritize loving relationships with persons in all aspects of our lives.  In other words, a congregation that prioritizes caring for children is one that becomes more caring towards everyone and everything.  We are spiritually shaped and transformed by our love of kids to become more loving people.

            And so he concludes his book, “The ecstasy of witnessing eternity in time [in caring for children] will ignite the good life of giving and receiving ministry in the world.”

            To draw these four weeks together then.  In our struggle with time—how to tell it, how to keep it, what to do with it, how fast or slow it goes—what we truly long for is a feeling of fullness, of being fully alive, of living the good life. 

            We get to that when we open ourselves to God to transform us, to make us new creatures.  That transformation occurs through loving relationships with persons.  We can open ourselves to love by practicing the spiritual gifts of wonder, curiosity, attention, delight, and affection.  The gifts of resonance.  Which our children have in abundance, and are willing to share, because “sharing is caring.”

            So, if you want to transcend your current time and feel fully alive, the best gift any congregation has to offer you is a chance to care for children.

Time Fatigue

Time Fatigue

Ecclesiastes 3:1-14

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

1 May 2022

            Back in November I was having a rough time and my spiritual director said, “You need to a retreat.”  He advised that I come stay at the Incarnation Monastery, a Benedictine community of the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska that is housed in North Omaha near Miller Park.  I responded, “Yes, that’s exactly what I need.” 

            And so arrangements were made for early December.  I felt decadent taking a little time in the middle of Advent for spiritual reflection and prayer.  Which is, of course, ironic, since that’s part of the point of Advent.  But preachers are often themselves so busy helping others with their spiritual lives that we don’t take the time for ours. 

            I only spent two days away, but it was exactly what I needed to rest, recharge, refocus, and spend time really thinking and praying about some things I needed to spend time really thinking and praying about.

            Now, the rhythm of a monastic retreat is unusual.  Waking very early for prayer.  Services of prayer and song throughout the day.  During some of those sitting in silence for twenty or thirty minutes.  A two hour period in the afternoon where no one is supposed to talk.  Going to bed early. 

            The strange marking of time compels you out of your routines.  You notice different things about your body, your spiritual energy.  It opens up vast time for reflection and contemplation.

            Completely unplanned, while I was away for those two days I read a book about how the church tells time.  The book is entitled The Congregation in a Secular Age by the Princeton theologian Andrew Root.  That book was the perfect read in that setting.  And I was struck by what Root had to say.

            Root identifies the core problem facing contemporary churches and church people to be time related.  Modern life moves at a speed and according to values that are at fundamental odds with the way the church keeps sacred time.  And modern uses of time have led to all sorts of problems for humans.  We long for something different, and he argues that the church’s approach to time is what people really need.

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

            I read that sentence and thought “Yes!”  That is exactly what we long for.

            And, so, I returned from the retreat and said to the church staff, “How about a series on time for the season of Easter?”  And they agreed.  One reason this seemed timely is that we’ve all had our time-keeping screwed up in the last two years of the pandemic.  We don’t know what time it is, while also feeling that we’ve lost time or wasted time, that we were bored.  While others felt like they gained valuable and rich time to spend on themselves or with family or exploring new hobbies and interests, or learning new skills.  Plus, as more folks return to normal activities, they are contemplating whether they want to be as busy as they were before the virus or whether they want to build in more down time.  Time—how to tell it, how to keep it, what to do with it, how fast or slow it goes—all of that is in the current stew of our lives, and so our worship for this Easter season will focus around these ideas and questions.

            So, to begin, let’s talk about time fatigue. 

            Andrew Root was talking to a local pastor who said, “I mean, these should be exciting times.  Everyone knows we need change.  But instead of creating energy, it creates depression.”  He began to notice that this was common in the churches he visited and spoke to.  He was hearing it from ministerial colleagues.  There’s a lot that needs to be done, people even know some of what it is, but they seem to lack the energy they once had for it.  Why is that?  And this was written even before a global pandemic, though it was published in the middle of it.

            What Root eventually diagnosed is that for individuals and even for institutions like churches, the problem is a “feeling that you just couldn’t find the energy to keep pace” with the speed that society now undergoes change. 

            If the twenty-first century world seems to be moving faster, that’s because it is.  One dimension that is rather obvious is the speed of technological change and how quickly a new technology becomes obsolete and is supplanted by another one, compelling folks to constantly get the newest and latest or fall behind in efficiency, skills, or even coolness.  Technology has, then, increased the speed of communication, transportation, and industrial production. 

            Which has, in turn, affected our social lives.  Even they can now move at a faster pace.  It’s a marvel and wonder to video chat with your grandchildren who live on another continent, when only a few decades ago you would have relied mostly upon mailing letters back and forth. 

            Social and fashion trends arise quickly and just as quickly are replaced.  Political debates are no longer in depth conversations occurring over months and years.  Through social media we can all keep up with hundreds or thousands of more friends and acquaintances than we once did, even knowing what they cooked for supper or the highlight of their vacation.  And we can all watch the livestream of the child’s first walk.

            I don’t need to belabor these points.  You are aware of them in your own lives.  And you’ve read articles, I’m sure, exploring both the good and bad outcomes of all these changes.  Instead, I want to focus in on one spiritual aspect of the new, faster pace of life. 

            Andrew Root calls it “the fatigue to be me.”  And he draws upon the work of the French sociologist Alain Ehrenberg in his book The Weariness of the Self, which I read this winter after reading Root’s book.  Ehrenberg identifies that there has been a radical increase in the rise of depression diagnoses and treatments in the last fifty years.  He then sets about to understand why.  And the conclusion he comes to is that people are worn out trying to keep pace with modern life.  Particularly, they are worn out trying to be themselves.  Worn out trying to be the best version of themselves.

            Part of what happened by the end of the twentieth century is that for many people in the wealthy West, there was a radical expansion of freedom and choice.  This came about through the demise of traditional social roles and expectations and the revolutions brought about by movements for civil and human rights for various groups of people.  All of these, of course, are good developments in the history of humanity. 

            But where even in the mid-twentieth century the social role and expectations for many people were decided for them, now most people had the freedom to decide for themselves.  Who will they marry, and will they stay married?  Will they have kids or not?  What career will they explore?  Where will they live?  How often will they move or change jobs?  What religion or spirituality will the practice, if any? 

            And along with them came new emphases.  To be unique.  To have self-esteem.  To live an authentic life.  To live your best life.

            And, yet, that doesn’t work out quite for everyone.  Not everyone has the financial resources or social connections.  There are unforeseen circumstances like illness, divorce, financial setbacks, and more. 

            And the shadow side to all this freedom is that you might be constantly wondering if the life you’ve chosen is the best one?  You might constantly be wondering what would happen if you made other choices?  Would that life be better, richer, more enjoyable?  You might get plagued by the question, “Am I living my best life?”

            Ehrenberg writes that depression then rose as a result of more and more people running out of energy to keep up with the new expectations of choosing, curating, and creating a rich, full life.  Root summarizes this idea when he writes, “But I don’t have the energy to meet this demand.  If I had the energy, the openness of identity construction would be exciting.  But without it, the choice and openness is depressing.”

            This is one of the particular spiritual crises of our contemporary age.  A fatigue that sets in with the ever accelerating pace of life.  An inability to keep up.  A time fatigue that leads to weariness.

            But what we truly desire is a richness of time, a fullness of time.  Maybe that’s a chance for time to slow down and let us focus, like I was able to on that monastic retreat.  Maybe what we long for is a sense of time larger than ourselves and our own choices and actions?  A sacred time that is bigger and more mysterious and that extends through the ages?

            Last week I stood at the graves of ancestors who lived four hundred years ago.  My Pilgrim ancestors who had traveled on the Mayflower to Plymouth.  John and Jane Tilley, who died during that first winter, and whose remains are interred on top of Cole’s Hill in Plymouth with those of all the others who died of starvation, illness, and exposure.  The monument is engraved with these words:

History records no nobler venture for faith and freedom than that of this pilgrim band.  In weariness and painfulness . . . in hunger and cold, they laid the foundations of a state wherein every [person] through countless ages should have liberty to worship God in [their] own way.

            I stood at the gravestone of their daughter, Elizabeth Tilley Howland, who survived that winter and lived to a ripe old age.  Her epitaph reads, “It is my will and charge to all my Children that they walk in the fear of the Lord and in Love and Peace toward each other.”  Those are words I quoted at my own ordination 25 years ago.

            And I found the grave of John Howland, her husband, and the young man who came to the colony as an indentured servant, almost died when he fell off the boat during a storm, and yet lived to be the last man of the original group of pilgrims, raising a large family and rising to wealth and prominence.

            This sacred connection through the ages is a different way of marking time than the fast pace of our contemporary age.  The whole purpose of our trip to New England last week was to explore the past, our history, our story, in order to gain a richer understanding of ourselves.

            Today we celebrate the 166th anniversary of the founding of the First Congregational Church, when Omaha was only a small settlement on the Missouri River and no one knew for certain what would become of this village or this congregation.  And, yet, here we are.  Because of the faith and vision of those founders and the generations that followed them in the work and ministry.

            A highlight of our trip was a visit to the Congregational Archives in Boston, where we found documents and information that were lacking in our own vast archives.  The great reading room looked out over the old Boston graveyard that contains such luminaries as John Hancock.  The room was decorated with the portraits of great pastors and thinkers of our movement.  It was not hard in such a space to feel a deep and abiding connection, a communion even, through time and space. 

            I was delighted that the archives had a copy of the 50th anniversary program of the congregation, celebrated in 1906.  I had not seen this booklet before.  And it’s closing paragraph resonated with me and Susan and Deb:

The church has passed through many and varied experiences, both of discouragement and of hope, during its history.  In them all it has endeavored to maintain its witness for [the One] who is the Light of the World.  And now as the shadows fall on its first half century, it is girding itself for the years to come, praying for grace to keep the faith and to commend it to [humanity] by word and life.

            This paragraph resonated because it felt so true of us in 2022.  That we too have “passed through many and varied experiences, both of discouragement and hope” and yet despite it all we too endeavor “to maintain [our] witness” to God “who is the Light of the World.”

            These deep connections help us to tell time in a different way.  To transcend the pace of contemporary life.  To step away from busyness towards fullness.  To focus on transformation, rather than change.  To seek resonance, rather than relevance. 

            And these are the ideas we’ll explore in the coming weeks of this series, “A Time for Everything.” 

The Last Enemy

The Last Enemy

1 Corinthians 15:1-26

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

17 April 2022

            “The last enemy to be defeated is death,” writes Saint Paul at the close of this proclamation of the resurrection.  In all of his writings Paul viewed death as a malevolent power.  Death was a force, often personified, which struck randomly and with abandon.

            Seven years ago in my Easter sermon, I contrasted the ancient view of death with our own.  I preached,

We do not share the ignorance of our forbearers that led to their fear of death as a malevolent power. Death is no longer such a mystery to us. We have a better grasp of biology and understand death as part of the life cycle of a biological organism. For many of us in the developed West, life itself is no longer "nasty, brutish, and short."

            Those sentences felt right seven years ago.  But they don’t feel quite right to me anymore.  Six million people have died in the last two years of a novel coronavirus.  We watch with horror the atrocities being committed in Ukrainian cities.  We are more attuned to the violence in our own nation.  Last year, 2021, was the deadliest in American history, it was just reported this week.  So, I believe we now understand our ancient forebearers better, and why they viewed death as a malevolent force and not simply as a biological fact. 

            In the spring of 2020, before the pandemic, the economists Anne Case and Agnus Deaton released their book Deaths of Despair detailing how the United States was already in the midst of a epidemic of death.  Our life expectancies were declining, after more than a century of dramatic increases.  Why, in our advanced society, was death on the rise?  The kinds of deaths on the increase were related to suicide, drug addiction, and alcohol abuse.  These were self-inflicted, preventable deaths.  And yet they were dramatically on the rise.  Their book was an attempt to explore and explain this shocking phenomenon.

            And what they identified was a rise in despair.  These sorts of deaths followed from unhappiness, depression, a lack of meaningful work, a lack of purpose, feeling left out and left behind by society.  They revealed that we have a serious social problem that we need to be aggressively addressing.  Unfortunately this revelation came just as the world shut down for the pandemic and focused our attention elsewhere.

            But their analysis is a wake-up call to us that we were already experiencing an epidemic of death, resulting from a epidemic of despair.  And so we have been living through a shift in our society and now, I can’t say the same things about our understanding of death that I did seven years ago.  Now I feel much closer to Saint Paul and the ancient writers of the Bible—death feels like a malevolent force, an enemy, and not simply a biological fact.

            So I turn to ancient wisdom.  Some of the most ancient wisdom we have—The Epic of Gilgamesh, that ancient Mesopotamian story that is in many ways the fountainhead of our literary tradition.   The Epic of Gilgamesh deals profoundly with issues of death and grief.

Gilgamesh is the king of great-walled Uruk.  His friend and companion is Enkidu. Together, they survive many dangerous adventures, only for Enkidu to die of some mysterious illness.  And Gilgamesh's grief overwhelms him.  He flees his city and his responsibilities and sets out on a journey around the world seeking immortality, an answer to the problem of death.  A way to defeat this enemy.

Near the end of his journey, Gilgamesh finds Utnapishtim. Utnapishtim is the builder of the ark and the survivor of the great flood.  His story pre-dates the account of Noah in Genesis, and many scholars think that the Noah story is simply the Israelite retelling of this even more ancient story.

When Utnapishtim sees Gilgamesh, he asks him why he looks so bad:

Why are your cheeks so hollow?  Why is your face so ravaged, frost-chilled, and burnt by the desert sun?  Why is there so much grief in your heart?  Why are you worn out and ready to collapse, like someone who has been on a long, hard journey?

Then Gilgamesh answers in one of the great laments in world literature:

Shouldn't my cheeks be hollow, shouldn't my face be ravaged, frost-chilled, and burnt by the desert sun?  Shouldn't my heart be filled with grief?  Shouldn't I be worn out and ready to collapse?  My friend, my brother, whom I loved so dearly, who accompanied me through every danger—Enkidu, my brother, whom I loved so dearly . . . the fate of humankind has overwhelmed him.  For six days I would not let him be buried, thinking, "If my grief is violent enough, perhaps he will come back to life again."  For six days and seven nights I mourned him, until a maggot fell out of his nose.  Then I was frightened, I was terrified by death, and I set out to roam the wilderness.  I cannot bear what happened to my friend—I cannot bear what happened to Enkidu—so I roam the wilderness in my grief.  How can my mind have any rest?  My beloved friend has turned into clay—my beloved Enkidu has turned into clay.  And won't I too lie down in the dirt like him, and never rise again?

Utnapishtim responds to Gilgamesh, basically scolding him for his grief and lack of gratitude and then warning him that he must change his life:

You have worn yourself out through ceaseless striving, you have filled your muscles with pain and anguish.  And what have you achieved but to bring yourself one day nearer to the end of your days?

Yes: the gods took Enkidu's life.  But man's life is short, at any moment it can be snapped, like a reed in a canebrake.  The handsome young man, the lovely young woman—in their prime, death comes and drags them away. . . . suddenly, savagely, death destroys us, all of us.

In this ancient story, we encounter death as the last enemy.  Death as the malevolent power.  The grief and anguish expressed by Gilgamesh, we understand.  The descriptions are vivid and remain true of us in our sorrow.  Their expressions of hope and longing for new life, resonate with us as well.  I read these ancient words and they speak to me even more powerfully after our experiences of the last few years.

            And, yet, Saint Paul tells us “The last enemy to be defeated is death.”  Death has been defeated.  Jesus the Christ died and rose again so that we might all rise again. 

Jesus himself told us “I am the resurrection and the life.”  We use those words to begin a Christian funeral service.  And at the close of that service, when we commit a body to the ground, we pray this prayer:

In the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God our sister or brother, and we commit her to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The Lord bless her and keep her, the Lord make his face to shine upon her and be gracious to her, the Lord lift up his countenance upon her and give her peace.

            This year it seemed fitting that on Good Friday afternoon we had a funeral.  For Mary Guin Knoll who died in February and wanted to wait for a spring funeral.  Mary Guin was 99 ½ years old and our eldest member at the time of her death.  Mary Guin was a school librarian, including at Bryan High School here in Omaha while some of our other members were students there.  I loved one story that her son Jeff told about her on Friday.  He said that every year when the list of most banned books was released, Mary Guin would doublecheck that all of them were in the school library and, if not, be sure to order them for her collection.

            Mary Guin lived a long and good life, and over her death and burial these ancient Christian words were spoken.  They were spoken because for us Christians, resurrection is our response to the power of death.  We proclaim a greater power, and so death has no ultimate power over us.  How can we comprehend this?

There are a couple of significant verbs in Paul’s opening remarks on resurrection.  He declares:

Now I remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which you also stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain.

There is something revealing in this phrase, "which you in turn received."  The Scottish theologian William Barclay says, we do not have to invent the gospel for ourselves.  This good news is not something we have to discover.  We don't have to be like Gilgamesh and travel around the world, striving and enduring hardship, searching for good news.  The good news has been proclaimed to us, we only have to receive it.

We receive the good news because we have witnessed it enlivening other people.  We have observed how the gospel changed someone's life.  How a beloved mentor lived differently than other people because of their faith.  How an acquaintance from church faced their impending death with courage and hope.  How a catastrophic loss was faced with resilience and dignity.  We believe the gospel to be true because we have witnessed its effects in the world.  This is not belief in the abstract, in some intellectual sense.  It is belief built out of our relationships with other people.

And we have learned that we do not lose community when we die.  Ruth Robinson, my beloved kindergarten Sunday school teacher of whom I have often spoken, is long deceased.  But because she played a significant role in the formation of my own faith, Ruth is here with us now.  She continues to participate in the body of Christ, because of the faith I received from her.  She continues to influence the world for good because of what she taught me that I now try to pass on to others.

And I’ve now taught many children and teenagers.  Some of them are now in their thirties and have children of their own.  Those young people, who will outlive me, already live lives changed by their encounter with the gospel.  Long after my own death, I will continue to participate in their faith and witness.  The little ones here in this congregation will be alive a century from now, hopefully remembering us and telling our stories. 

Just as this morning, at the close of our Easter Sunrise Service, we gathered around the grave of the Rev. Reuben Gaylord, who founded this congregation in 1856.  To honor his faith and legacy among us still.

We do not leave the body of Christ at our deaths, but continue to participate in the on-going life of the church.  We share in ecstatic fellowship with our fellow Christians, including all who came before us and all who will come after us.  The circle is unbroken.  And the circle continues to grow, reaching out farther and farther, spreading our life and our influence.  By participating in the life of Jesus, we are in communion with God and therefore with all of creation in an interrelated whole.  When this perishable body ceases to function anymore, this life will go on.

This truth of the resurrection, this good news, is something in which we stand.  That’s the other significant verb in Paul’s opening remarks.  We stand, we hold firm.  The good news we have received fills us with the hope . . . . and the courage . . . to live as Jesus lived.

Jesus lived a certain kind of life, which was very different from the way most people live.  Jesus lived in solidarity with the poor and the outcast, and he challenged the powers which enslave people: Things like purity codes used to exclude those who are different.  Religious practices that separated people from God rather than drawing them closer.  Economic practices which robbed people of land and the ability to provide for themselves.  Imperial policies which used violence to oppress.

So when the forces of domination crucified Jesus it was a challenge to the way Jesus had lived.  It would have been easy to interpret that the life Jesus lived was a waste and, therefore, no model for how anyone else should live.

But that is not how Paul and the other apostles interpreted the crucifixion of Jesus.  Instead, they saw the crucifixion itself as the moment which revealed God's victory and glory and love.  Why was this?  

Because they experienced Jesus as resurrected from the dead.  And we may not fully understand this experience, but it was clearly very real to them. 

And if God raised Jesus from the dead, then the life Jesus lived was vindicated.  Which is the more important point.  Jesus’ way of life received God's seal of approval.  In other words, God was saying, "this is the sort of life I desire all humanity to live."  This is the sort of life defeats the power of death.

Our Christian hope and our Christian faith is that if we stand firmly in the good news and live lives of justice, love, and peace, that we will not have lived in vain.  That our lives are part of God's on-going victory over the powers of sin and death.

Which means that the more we live the kind of life God wants us to live--lives of justice, love, and peace—the more we participate in defeating death.  Deaths of despair.  Deaths from violence and war.  The more we live with Christian faith and hope and love, the more those needless forms of death come to an end.  

Death, the malevolent power, the last enemy, is defeated because we have learned to live life the way Jesus did.

I do not know what awaits us when we die.  But I do know that my life has meaning.  That it will continue on even after this body ceases to function.  Why?

Because I have tried to live as Jesus lived.  And I know from the story of the resurrection that such a life is not lived in vain.

Works of Mercy

Works of Mercy

Matthew 25:34-40; Micah 6:6-8

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

4 April 2022

            In sixth grade I played soccer.  We practiced on a field about a mile from my house that was part of the campus of Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College, close to the football stadium.  When soccer practice was finished, our legs would be covered with a sticky, orange dust.  When you showered at home, the orange would run off of your body in waves.  Also your soccer shoes and socks took on an orange stain regardless of how many times you washed and bleached them.

            We knew that the orange dust was the result of the field often being flooded by nearby Tar Creek.  Because the water in Tar Creek was a bright orange ribbon running through the landscape.  We knew it was stained orange because it flowed through an area of closed mines.  For in the time of our grandparents and great-grandparents, our county had provided much of the heavy metals that the US used in manufacturing and fighting two World Wars. 

            To me it was ironic that this polluted creek flowed through the richest neighborhood in town, for a long stretch bordering the estate of the Coleman family who had owned the mines. 

            We knew it was polluted.  But somehow, we never really thought about how toxic it was.  It wasn’t until I was an adult and read an article in Time Magazine that I had the epiphany that I had routinely been poisoned as a child by heavy metals such as lead, zinc, and magnesium.  I’ve long pondered how we didn’t know that, didn’t realize it, weren’t up-in-arms as a community about that?  Willful ignorance?  Corrupt and venal political leaders?  The effects of that lead on our brains?

            It wasn’t just the orange residue in the soccer fields.  The mine tailings, called chat, which is something like gravel, were/are piled in giant mounds that rise in northern Ottawa County near the Kansas border like small mountains, creating a weird and fascinating moonscape.  People went there to play, to climb the chatpiles, to ride dune buggies.  People also used the freely available chat for all sorts of things, in particular as gravel for roads and driveways.

            My grandparents driveway was gravel.  As a young kid I’d play in it much like a sand box, using tools to shape roads and hills and cityscapes to drive my cars and toys.  I don’t know that my grandparents gravel came from a chat pile, but it very likely did.  As did that along the county’s gravel roads.  Which means I played in the residue of heavy metals.  And every time a car drove down the county road and kicked up dust that blew in across the farm, dust so bad that my grandmother would clean her living room twice a day, we all were likely breathing toxins.

            The person who did finally take the lead on addressing this problem and both informing and mobilizing the community was Rebecca Jim, who was one of my high school counselors.  It was in her role as sponsor of the Indian Club at high school that she and a group of students began to raise awareness.  Eventually Rebecca retired as a school counselor in order to full-time lead the agency working on cleaning up this environmental disaster and restoring the waters.  Some people believe the problem is too big and that the creek will never be clean again, but Rebecca refuses to believe that.  She says, “We want swimmable, fishable, drinkable water. I’m still working for the day when we can say, ‘yes, meet me at the creek.’”

            This very familiar biblical passage in Matthew 25 includes a list of ministries that have collectively come to be called the “Works of Mercy.”  Feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, welcoming strangers, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and those in prison.  And most churches, regardless of their theology or politics, usually have ministries that try to address some or all of these needs.

            Ragan Sutterfield, whose article has guided our Lenten worship series, writes that “A world in the midst of ecological crisis is a world in need of mercy and compassion.”  And so as we contemplate what spiritual practices are required of us in order to living faithfully, sustainably, and resiliently at this time in the world’s history, Sutterfield believes that the Works of Mercy in Matthew 25 are a great place to begin. 

            And so he invites us to renew our imaginations and look again at this familiar list of ministries and see how we might embody them in the midst of an ecological crisis.  So, for example, if one of the teachings of Jesus is that we must give water to the thirsty, surely that means we must have fresh, clean, healthy water.  Which means that if Christians are to faithfully live into this work of mercy, we must also be concerned with the state of our waters.  Our work of mercy then means being concerned about a place like Tar Creek and the heavy metal pollution from discarded mines and its many impacts upon the landscape, the waters, and the health and well-being of humans, plants, and animals.  Our faithfulness to God expands our vision, our concern, and ultimately our work far beyond what we might have initially thought.

            As Ragan Sutterfield writes, any work we might do on a particular environmental issue actually must be seen within its wider connections to a host of other moral concerns, so we should seek to do our works of mercy “within a frame of healing the whole.”

            He was one of seven contributors to a booklet entitled Embodying Care: The Works of Mercy and Care of Creation that engages in this act of reimagining the teachings of Matthew 25 through this wider lens of creation care.

            If Love is the “center of creation,” which follows from our Christian teaching about the nature of God, God’s work in the world, and God’s expectations for human beings, then love will be at the center of our focus in spirituality and service.  The booklet reads:

Our work is to cultivate our affections for the gifts of creation, which includes our own lives.  When we begin to love the creation, giving our care and attention to it, we will begin to move into the life of the Creator, the community of God called Love.  Love binds together all.

            This being a communion Sunday, I was particularly drawn to the discussion of feeding the hungry by Episcopal priest Nadia Stefko.  She ties this work of mercy to communion.  She describes the communion table as “our fullest expression of covenant eating,” and points out that this “sacramental encounter must infuse and inform all of our eating throughout the weeks of our lives.”  So the lessons we embody at communion should be shared throughout our normal interactions.  How so?

            She asks us to consider what it means when Jesus talks about feeding the hungry. Who exactly is hungry?  Honestly, we all are.  She writes, “So when we talk about how best to feed the hungry, we are talking about how best to feed all of us—about how we humans take our life from the life of the world around us.”  And so our concern and our work of mercy should broaden to include how food is raised and prepared, the many issues related to the agricultural economy.  All of this enters into our covenant with God and with the world.

            Nadia Stefko provides six suggestions for how to reimagine this work of mercy, feeding the hungry.  First, we need to learn what we can about food and its production.  Second, we can’t just be passive consumers, but should be engaged in our food preparation through gardening, cooking, hunger relief efforts, and more.

            Third, we should do our best to eat locally.  Her fourth suggestion builds on this idea—we should also build local community around our food by getting to know people through food—eating together, cooking together, raising it together.

            Her fifth suggestion is very important—“acknowledge your limits.”  Our individual actions will not fix everything that’s wrong with our current food economy.  We cannot achieve a “morally pure diet.”

            And her final suggestion is to “remember always to say grace.”  She expands on this idea:

Giving thanks for food is a countercultural act in two ways: It speaks against the commodification of food by naming it as gift . . . and it articulates gratitude for what is present before us, over against the fear about what is absent—the fear that fuels the myth of scarcity that is embedded in our dominant food systems.

            So, these are just a few ideas connected to one of the works of mercy.  We could perform the same reimagining with each of the others.  I encourage you as part of our Lenten reflection and preparation to engage in this reimagining.  How might your spiritual practices, your acts of service and ministry, be conceived of through the lens of creation care and healing the whole?  What then are some specific new things you might do to continue to live, in this season of sustainability and resilience, as a faithful and effective disciple of Jesus?

            I want to close with another statement from Ragan Sutterfield.  He writes “Our call is to love and care for our neighbors within our limits.  This is work enough for those who engage it fully—and for some corners of creation, it can make all the difference.”

            I loved that statement.  Sometimes we get overwhelmed by all the issues of justice, peace, and morality that call for our attention and time.  But we each individually have limits.  We need to remind ourselves that the church universal and all people of goodwill are working together and collectively on these issues.  All we must do is our part.  Rebecca Jim was just a school counselor who got concerned and motivated about the polluted creek that flowed where she and her students live.

            So go and do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.  This is work enough for all of us.

Ash Wednesday Reflection

Ash Wednesday

Psalms 2 & 1

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

2 March 2022

            A number of global Christian leaders have called upon the Church to mark this Ash Wednesday by praying for the people of Ukraine, for the end of the Russian invasion, and for peace instead of war.  So, for our service this evening I have selected two psalms to read.  I begin with Psalm number 2:

Psalm 2

Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain?

The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and his anointed, saying,

“Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.”

He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord has them in derision.

Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying,

“I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.”

I will tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you.

Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.

You shall break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”

Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth.

Serve the Lord with fear, with trembling

kiss his feet, or he will be angry, and you will perish in the way; for his wrath is quickly kindled. Happy are all who take refuge in him.

We think of the Book of Psalms as songs in praise and celebration of God to be used in worship.  So, it probably surprises us to realize that the second psalm in the entire collection is this one, that takes a geopolitical vision.  A song for the faithful during a time of war, calamity, and violence.  A song condemning war and violence and the political leaders who inflict it upon the people.  Condemning them for believing they are sovereign, whereas God is the true sovereign.  And the singers of this psalm believe that God will enact justice upon those rulers who behave violently and unjustly.

The Archbishop of Canterbury as called this attack upon Ukraine “an act of great evil.”  Pope Francis has declared himself heartbroken and demanded that the weapons be silenced.  He called upon Christians around the world to fast today in solidarity with the suffering of the Ukrainian people.  The national officers of the United Church of Christ released these words of prayer:

Make us a people who love our children, all of our children, more than we love greed, power, and control. Overturn governments of tyranny wherever they are found. Disrupt the intentions of evil and give us power to stand against demonic forces of greed and control. Grant that peace and justice come to warring nations by the hands of those courageous enough to stand and study war no more. Let Thy kin-dom come on earth as it is in heaven, we pray. 

            Epifaniy, the Metropolitan of Kyiv and All Ukraine of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church delivered a very direct condemnation, “There has been an unprovoked, insidious, cynical attack by Russia and Belarus on Ukraine.”  He added, “Those who have started and are waging an aggressive war against Ukraine should know that according to God’s law and human laws, they are murderers and criminals. And for their crime, they will speak before God and before humanity, without escaping condemnation and punishment.”

            Epifaniy then encouraged his people:

Our common mission is to repel the enemy, to protect our homeland, our future, and the future of the new generations from the tyranny that the attacker seeks to bring with his bayonets.

The truth is on our side. Therefore, the enemy, with the help of God and with the support of the whole civilized world, will be defeated.

Our task now is to unite, to withstand the first blow, not to panic. We believe in God’s providence and the victory of truth.

            The purpose of Ash Wednesday is to set aside time for reflection.  And in particular reflection upon our mortality.  A reminder that our lives are finite, fragile, and limited, and not fully in our control.  And from this reflection upon mortality to then take stock of our moral character, to examine ourselves, and in particular what sins we need to repent.  Ash Wednesday begins a forty day journey of Lenten fasting and spiritual practice that ends with Holy Week and the Feast of Resurrection.

            There was a time when 21st century Americans could and did avoid thinking about their mortality, and so Ash Wednesday had this vivid counter-cultural aspect.  A day in which we called attention to something people generally tried to avoid. 

            But the last few years our fragility, vulnerability, and mortality have been quite vivid.  Instead of this day calling our attention to it, this day has taken on a new emphasis—not reminding us of a hard truth but giving us some solace and comfort in the midst of reality.

            And here, just as we might be finally emerging from the most difficult days of this global pandemic, war.  Another reminder of danger, suffering, vulnerability. 

            Yet I’ve read a lot the last few days about the dramatic change in the world in the last week.  There is a measure of global unity and focus that we haven’t seen in decades.  We are seeing evil and its consequences.  But even more importantly, we are seeing courage.  We are watching people fight for liberty, freedom, independence, and democracy.  For their own agency and autonomy and dignity.  We are being reminded of the big values and why they matter and what sacrifices humans are willing to make to ensure them. 

            And so I want to read another Psalm, the first Psalm.  Most scholars believe it was quite intentionally placed at the opening of this hymn collection in order to paint a vivid image of the good life and the bad life and why we are called to follow the way of God and what benefits accrue to us when we do.  And that, in essence, all the other psalms fit within the rubric of this opening song. 

            As I read, use this psalm to reflect upon yourself, to examine yourself.  And in the context of this time in which we live in which so much has been made clear.  And let’s be sure that we are on the side of peace, of life, of love, of courage, so that we might enjoy the blessing and happiness of God.

Psalm 1

Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers;

but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on God’s law they meditate day and night.

They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. I n all that they do, they prosper.

The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.

Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;

for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.

Your Restoration

Your Restoration

Mark 1:29-31; Zephaniah 3:14-20

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

23 January 2022

            The ancient prophet summons the people to rejoice, for God is restoring the people.  “Sing aloud, daughter of Zion; shout, all ye Israel!”

            We will be renewed in love.  Our oppressors vanquished.  Our outcasts gathered.  Our brokenness healed.  Our shame turned into praise.  All of us gathered home again, and our fortunes restored.  For God is salvation.

            Now, we note, this hasn’t actually happened yet.  The prophet is looking forward to it.  But he summons the people to rejoice now nonetheless.  To rejoice now in the God of salvation, even as that salvation is yet to come.  To rejoice now looking forward in anticipation of the fulfillment of the promises of restoration.

            Now we also read that “the mother of Simon’s wife was in bed with a fever, and immediately they told Jesus about her.  Jesus came and lifted her up, taking her by the hand.  Then the fever left her and she ministered to them.”

            A daughter of Zion is sick and need of healing.  And through Christ she is restored.  In these two short sentences in the Gospel story we read a narrative that embodies the promises of the prophet, so today’s let’s look more closely at this story and what it teaches us about our humanity, God’s love, and the healing power of the divine that brings about our restoration.

            In the last two years, we’ve all learned that even if illness can strike anyone, anywhere from the White House to the homeless shelter, those most likely to become ill and to be struck down by it are those without power and affluence.  The Covid pandemic has more deeply impacted racial minorities, especially Native American communities.  The poor and the working classes.  One thinks vividly of the meat packers who ended up on the front lines of the pandemic in April 2020.  Especially in the early days of the pandemic, the ability to isolate and protect oneself and ones family was generally a sign of some affluence and privilege, while “necessary workers” put their lives and health at risk.

            We know that illness has a greater impact upon poor and marginalized communities because of a history of neglect, lack of access to quality health care, food deserts, higher rates of crime, violence, and drug use, and the presence of pollution, dirtier air and dirtier water.  That oppressive systems of colonialism, white supremacy, and patriarchy are also public health problems.

            And so when we hear that a daughter of Zion is very ill, we bring all of that knowledge to bear and wonder—is this just an infection or is it a metaphor for everything else we know about disease and illness at the intersection of injustice and exploitation?  She just might represent the ways in which women’s bodies are harmed by patriarchy.

            Now, at the same time, she can also represent something more universal—the reality that all of us experience these moments of vulnerability, illness, and pain.

            “To be alive today is to live with pain,” declares Rita Nakashima Brock in the opening sentence of her marvelous book Journeys by Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power.  She continues,

For some of us, our pain is the daily struggle to survive and to find a safe place to live.  Others of us work to lift oppressive barriers that silence us and batter us into submission.  For those unable to hope or to find one sustaining, ennobling relationship, a quiet, desolate loneliness defines the center of our existence, a center sometimes hidden by intense, aimless activity or hollow friendships.  To live with our pain without some comprehension is to exist in the denial of pain or in the overwhelming, intractable presence of it.  Both lead to despair.

            “Rejoice, daughter . . . God will renew you in love, daughter,” the prophet promises.  And so, “Jesus came and lifted her up, taking her by the hand.  Then the fever left her and she ministered to them.”

            Rita Nakashima Brock calls this deep human experience of pain “brokenheartedness” and writes that the way to healing is through the heart.  To find the power that lies within our hearts.  A divine power of love.  What she calls erotic power.

            She is not alone among feminist thinkers to focus on the importance of the stories of Jesus healing.  And how those stories often feature women and other marginalized people.  And how those stories aren’t just focused on the physical, but so often reflect an attention to the whole person—emotional, spiritual, even social and political.  How in healing a person Jesus restores them to life, to their own power and agency, to their relationships with others, to their places in the community.  The pioneering feminist scholar Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza wrote that “Jesus makes people whole, healthy, cleansed, and strong.  [He] restores people’s humanity and life.”

            Rita Nakashima Brock explores this divine erotic power present in the healing stories of Jesus and cautions that we misread the stories if we see them as Jesus having some supernatural magical power.  Rather, Jesus is attuned to the divine power of love within his own heart, and in those moments of healing, he awakens that power within those he touches.  For healing, according to Brock, genuinely occurs in relationships of mutuality that empower our own agency. 

            She writes, “The unexpected and new power is participated in by Jesus, but it is not his alone. . . .  The point is . . . the revelation of a new understanding of power that connects members of the community.” 

            Studying this week, I turned again to the insightful Chicana scholar Gloria Anzaldua and her book Light in the Dark, which is a rich exploration of brokenness and healing.  Anzaldua reminds us that “We are all wounded” but that we “can connect through the wound that’s alienated us from others.”  By embracing our vulnerability and our brokenness, and using that to connect with other people, we then gain the power to heal.

            And that healing begins by imagining something different.  We change our own “perspectives and perceptions.”  We choose a different future.  We imagine a better world.  So, “As we think inspiring, positive, life-generating thoughts,” she writes, “and embody these thoughts in every act we perform, we can gradually change the mood of our days, the habits of years, and the beliefs of a lifetime.”  Anzaldua also reminds us that healing is an on-going process.

            It is this consciousness that we must cultivate in relationship together, using art and storytelling and writing.

            I was drawn back to the idea that the prophet is summoning the people to rejoice, despite the fact that God’s promised salvation has not yet arrived.  This isn’t the party after the victory, this is the party anticipating the victory, trying to embody that future restoration even now, to participate in its birthing.  To rejoice now is to help make it happen.

            Jesus, in touch with the divine erotic power present in his own heart, comes to the sick mother and he lifts her up, which I imagine we can interpret both literally and figuratively.  The divine power in him connects with and awakens the power of God within this daughter of Zion.  And then Jesus takes her by the hand.  The importance of touch.  Of sustaining one another.    And then the fever left her.  Whatever was the cause of her illness, whether the injustices of patriarchy, an infectious disease, a broken heart, the universal human experience of pain, the power of God’s love sets her free, heals her, and restores her.  “Rejoice, daughter, and exult with all your heart, daughter.” 

            Now, what happens?  We read, “and she ministered to them.”

            We might initially think—oh the boys healed mother-in-law so she could get up and fix them lunch.

            But I think something more is happening here.  We are told that she ministered to them.  She is a minister.  She who was in need of care is now an active agent in caring for others.  Her power has been restored. 

            The Ghanaian theologian Mercy Amba Oduyoye helps us to see something we might miss in this final phrase of the Gospel story.  Oduyoye writes that hospitality is a key experience of African women and also a significant theological concept.  Hospitality is about much more than welcoming people and providing food and shelter, as important as those are.  In the African experience, she writes, that “offering and receiving hospitality” reveals an “emphasis on sustaining our life-force at all costs.” 

            The healed mother of our gospel story is a minister.  She is practicing hospitality.  She who was in need of the divine power of healing is now herself engaged in sustaining the life-force. 

            This Gospel story truly is about connection, relationship, mutuality, empowerment.  We are restored by God through the ways that we sustain the life-force in one another. 

            And Oduyoye echoes what our other teachers today have reminded us, this connection comes in our shared vulnerability and woundedness.  She writes that practicing hospitality, the power of sustaining the life-force, paradoxically makes us vulnerable.  The very thing that strengthens life also risks it.  She writes, “Hospitality is built on reciprocity, openness and acceptance, but to open one’s self to the other is always a risk.”

            “Fear not,” the prophet reminds us.  God is present with us.  God is actively working in us and through us, to bring about this healing, this salvation, this restoration.

            And so I turn again to Rita Nakashima Brock and her insights on the divine power of healing that resides within each one of us.  She writes,

No one else can stop the suffering of brokenheartedness in our world but our own courage and willingness to act in the midst of the awareness of our own fragility. . . .  Our heartfelt action, not alone, but in the fragile, resilient interconnections we share with others, generates the power that makes and sustains life.  There, in the erotic power of heart, we find the sacred mystery that binds us in loving each other fiercely in the face of suffering and pain.

            “Sing aloud, daughter of Zion; shout all ye Israel!”

            For God is restoring our fortunes.

            Within us is the divine power of love that helps us to connect with one another, inspires us to imagine a new and better future, and gives us the strength to sustain life.

            “Rejoice, daughter, and exult with all your heart, daughter of Jerusalem!”

Your Vindication

Your Vindication

Isaiah 62:1-7, 10-12; 2 Corinthians 6:2-10

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

16 January 2022

            “We are most dangerous to ourselves and to the people around us when we feel powerless.” 

            That’s according to Brene Brown, who has turned her academic research on the emotions into a series of bestselling books.  In Rising Strong she discusses how believing one is a failure can lead us to feel powerless, and how feeling powerless, we can begin to despair.  Then she offers a surprising definition of despair—“It’s the belief that tomorrow will be just like today.”

            What she means by that is, tomorrow is just like today, if we can’t set goals and pursue them.  If we can’t make any changes in our lives.  Once we begin to feel that way, then we feel powerless and we despair. 

            And this is when she gives a surprising definition of hope.  Hope, she writes, “is not an emotion; It’s a cognitive process.”  She explains, “Hope happens when we can set goals, have the tenacity and perseverance to pursue those goals, and believe in our own abilities to act.”  Hope, then is “a function of struggle,” not some rosy outlook on life.

            What often prevents us from hoping, from acting, from rising strong, is our own sense of shame.  Some of Brown’s earliest and best research focused on shame and how that is different from guilt.  Guilt, she writes, is feeling “I screwed up.”  Whereas shame is feeling, “I’m a screw up.”  Guilt focuses on behavior and shame on our sense of self. 

            We counter shame by being open and vulnerable.  She encourages us to talk with someone we trust about our feelings of shame, because “shame thrives in secrecy” and it “can’t survive being spoken” to someone who responds with empathy.

            And so the prophet Isaiah declares that he will not keep silent.  Instead, he proclaims the vindication of the daughters of Zion.  God has seen and heard, and God is responding.  God is a rock and a refuge.  God delivers those she loves.  Now is the day of salvation, the epistle proclaims. 

            In her notes on today’s scripture lessons, biblical scholar Wilda Gafney writes that these stories offer “a way to talk about life after trauma.”  We can see that in the Psalm, where the poet cries out for God to deliver her from her enemies.  Or in the Epistle lesson, where Saint Paul has an entire list of bad things that have happened—beatings, imprisonments, punishments, sleepless nights. 

            Wilda Gafney points out that this is most clear in the reading from Isaiah.  If we listen carefully to that text we realize the sorts of trauma it’s about.  Zion has been conquered.  Ravaged by her enemies.  What must be understood is that this includes sexual violation and violence.  How often rape and other dehumanizing acts accompany conquest. 

            Yet, God is promising vindication.  Shame will be vanquished.  The daughters of zion will receive a crown of beauty.  They will find a spouse who cherishes them.  They will be protected from future violation.  They will be saved. 

            One of the best books on life after trauma from a theological perspective is Serene Jones’s Trauma and Grace.  Jones is the President of Union Theological Seminary in New York.  And she’s spent much of her career working in the field of trauma, including leading support groups for women recovering from violence.

            For her a key insight into life after trauma is that “wounds are not magically healed but are borne.”  That’s borne with an “e,” as in carried.  She writes that we have to learn to “hold the loss.”  And that we can do that, because we are “held together in the strong grip of divine compassion.”

She suggests two spiritual practices to helps us hold the loss and move into life after trauma—mourning and wondering.  She writes that grieving is the hardest of all our emotions, that its “demands are so excruciating.”  But that if we genuinely grieve, then we have the possibility of moving on.  So we must learn to give our loss “as much attention as can be mustered.” 

Last week we talked about the strength of attentive care, and how that includes care of ourselves.  When dealing with loss, grief, and trauma, that is one of the vital places for attending to ourselves, caring for ourselves.  Giving ourselves the time and space to have these emotions, to feel them fully, to learn from them.  Instead of living in denial, pushing them down all the time, trying to move on too quickly.

Serene Jones teaches that if we are attentive to our mourning, that’s actually when wonder appears.  Because if we are attentive to our grief, then we are being vulnerable.  And it is when we are vulnerable, that we are most likely to be drawn outside of ourselves, to have our attention drawn to something or someone else.

“Wondering,” she writes, “is the simple capacity to behold the world around you (and within you), to be awed by its mystery, to be made curious by its difference, and to marvel at its compelling form.” 

And so wonder works to heal the trauma because, as she says, “wonder is the complete opposite of the truncated, shut-down systems of perception that traumatic violence breeds in its victims.” 

            Now, then the Gospel lesson Gafney attaches to these other scripture lessons about life after trauma is the story of Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River.  What gives?  How is this story tied to the themes of these other passages?

            Gafney answers, “Against this background [of sexual violence and trauma], the ability of women to choose baptism and discipleship matters.”

            The ability to choose an identity, a faith, a community.  To undergo a ritual about new life, putting the past to death and being reborn as a beloved child of God. 

            To rise strong from trauma, powerlessness, and despair is to believe that we can set goals and pursue them. That we have agency and power.  To hope.  To do new things so that tomorrow is not like today. 

            God sees our pain and hears our cries.  God’s compassion holds us.  God’s power delivers us.  God saves us.  We are vindicated, because God has given us the love, the strength, and the chance to heal.  And to move forward.

            Now is the day of salvation.  We are alive.

            Our vindication shines out like a blazing light.

            We are God’s beloved children, in whom God is well pleased.

As the final verses of today’s Psalm declare: 

God reached down from on high, she took me;

She drew me out of the multitude of water.

She delivered me from my strong enemy,

And from those who hate me;

For they were too mighty for me.

They confronted me in the day of my calamity;

Yet the Sheltering God was my support.

She brought me out into a broad place;

She delivered me, because she delights in me.

Your Strength

Your Strength

Isaiah 52:1-10; I Corinthians 1:26-31; Luke 2:41-51

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

9 January 2022

            Tuesday afternoon Randy Solberg sat down in his recliner to take a nap and didn’t wake up.  The news of his sudden and unexpected death was a shock to all of us.  Randy was only seventy-four.  But Mary, his wife, assured me that this was exactly the way Randy had always wanted to die.  And there is something good in a death without illness and pain that comes at home in your recliner while taking a nap.

            What I enjoyed most about Randy as his pastor was his curiosity.  He was constantly learning new things and constantly engaging with people.  When we posted about his death on Facebook the bereaved comments began pouring in from you all about the various ways he touched your lives, from always engaging you in conversation, to enjoying your chili, to his hearty laugh.

            He enjoyed my teaching and preaching, often following up on an idea or a book I mentioned.  He would actually read the theology books I talk about.  And then want to discuss them.  I introduced him to Process thought—the discipline in which I’d written my dissertation—and he dove into it, fully embracing it as his own theological paradigm, and doing his own independent research and reading. 

            In the early days of my pastorate, I held a Spirituality Group on Wednesday nights and Randy was one of the most faithful members of that group, as we explored prayer, meditation, lectio divina, Buddhist mindfulness, Quaker silence, and more. 

            His deep spirituality and appreciation for theology, also led to a rich embrace of worship and liturgy.  He was a vital member of our Worship Ministry in a period when we made some significant changes to our Sunday morning worship.  At that time when the Worship Ministry would consider a topic they’d read articles and essays on various possibilities and then engage in robust discussions.  One of the changes that Randy helped to lead was that our communion bread is always gluten-free.  We had first begun offering a gluten-free option for those who needed it, but Randy insisted that was not welcoming and inclusive enough.  Plus, it didn’t sound much like communion to have separate bread for some people.  Therefore, we must, if we were to live up to our values and truly practice communion, have only one type of bread and that would be gluten-free for everyone.  This despite the fact that it is significantly more expensive.  But no one notices that now, and we’ve lived with the change for so long people probably don’t even realize the rich discussion and deep thinking that led to that decision.

            But Randy wasn’t only focused on the higher things like spirituality, theology, and liturgy, he was deeply engaged with other people and committed to a life of service.  One of his passions was veterans, himself being a combat veteran, and he led our efforts during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to minister to soldiers in those combat theatres and the returning veterans.  This ministry intersected with our fair-trade coffee program, which he also led for many years, bringing us reports on farm worker conditions in the coffee bean fields of Haiti. 

            Randy hasn’t been as active among us in recent years, and I missed him.  Randy was that somewhat odd combination of a person who was both a Congregationalist and a Roman Catholic.  So there were seasons of his life when he was drawn back to the Catholic Church and its rich spirituality and liturgy.  He was particularly drawn to Pope Francis and the changes Francis has embodied and encouraged in the church, and Randy wanted to lend his support to such efforts.

            The Process theologian Marjorie Suchocki teaches that God calls us to be active participants with the entire world.  She writes that “to exist is to be physically related to the whole universe; to exist is to receive from all and to give to all.”  God desires that we participate fully in God’s creative work.

            This openness to possibility is one reason Randy was drawn to Process theology, and it so resonated with who he was—his curiosity, his deep thinking, his engagement with other people, his devotion to service, his honesty and authenticity and passion, his ability to embrace what is best about us and encourage us to be even better.

            What a blessing to have known him and been known by him.  We mourn his passing.

            In today’s lesson from the prophet Isaiah we are encouraged to “Don our strength.”  Isaiah is speaking, again, to Daughter Zion, encouraging her to embrace her beauty, her divine glory, to sit upon her thrown in majesty, to purge herself of all that is impure, and to revel and rejoice that God has comforted and saved the people. 

            And from there the vision of salvation expands.  In the Psalm, God’s love is for all humanity, all creation, and extends into the heavens.  In the Gospel, God is revealed to be present and at work in the life of a child, particularly a child engaged in learning.  A reminder to all our teachers and students and school employees and parents living through this vexing and difficult era, that our tradition reminds us that what you do in the classroom is sacred and holy and part of God’s work in the world.  Thank you.

            Then, in the Epistle, we are told that God is at work in the everyday lives of ordinary people, particularly those considered foolish and weak and insignificant.  The Epiphany season teaches us to be attentive and to look for God to surprise us, for God is present and at work all over the place, in people and times and locations we don’t expect.

            As I prepared for this Sunday I was drawn to this invitation of the prophet Isaiah to “don your strength.”  What might our strength be?  Well, we know that our strength comes from the Lord, but how does it manifest?  In these readings, as we’ve seen, it manifests in some surprising places—in a missing child, and worried mother, and foolish people.

            The Isaiah passage itself is focused on this image of the royal daughters of Jerusalem.  Wilda Gafney, the biblical scholar whose lectionary and translations we are using this Epiphany season, warns that this image of Daughter Zion can be turned into a “virtually unattainable archetype” that’s rooted in “patriarchal and paternalistic notions,” so we do want to be sure to avoid that in our interpretation and application of the text.

            But is there a particular strength the Daughters of Zion might have that we can learn from?  Gafney draws upon Mary, the worried mother of the missing child in the Gospel story.  She points out that Mary had given her child a “surprising amount of room, a full day to wander among the traveling group out of her direct sight.”  Mary was clearly not a helicopter parent!  She gave Jesus freedom to wander and to wonder.  I’m guessing that some of Jesus’ curiosity might have come from his mother.

            To explore this theme of strength, I returned to a book I read last fall, The Heroine with 1,001 Faces by Maria Tatar.  Tatar is a professor at Harvard with a long and distinguished career studying folk and fairy tales.  In this latest book she challenges one of the dominant approaches to such stories—the hero myth as described by Joseph Campbell.  Campbell’s masterpiece, the Hero with a Thousand Faces introduced us all to the concept of the hero’s journey as an archetype structuring the world’s great stories.  With its call to adventure, crossing the threshold, descent into the underworld, and return home.  And how from these stories we can all learn to follow our bliss.  Campbell was most influential in the way Hollywood has told stories.  George Lucas was an ardent fan, and Star Wars explicitly follows Campbell’s understanding of myth.

            Maria Tatar is critical of Campbell because he focuses on the stories of male heroes and largely ignores the vast trove of folk and fairy tales that through much of human history were passed down orally by women.  The stories they told one another as they cleaned and cooked.  The stories they told children in the nursery.  These stories don’t fit the structure of the hero’s journey and are most often centered around concerns of women about children, marriage, untrustworthy and violent men, and domestic chores.

            She does not identify one archetypal structure that fits folk and fairy tales from all cultures, but she does reveal themes, including stories of resistance, stories of women as tricksters overcoming threatening situations, and what she reveals as the central understanding of heroism in women’s folk tales—attentive care.  Maria Tatar explains, “Attentive care [is] an affect that is triggered by openness to the world, followed by curiosity and concern about those who inhabit it.”

            So the greatest sin, in these stories, is the “failure to acknowledge the presence of others and to care about the circumstances and conditions of their lives.”

            I want to use Maria Tatar’s analysis of women’s folk tales, then, to help us interpret and apply these lessons from scripture.  Daughter Zion is to don her strength, a strength that God is going to make use of to bring about the salvation of the world, all humanity and all creatures.  But this power isn’t something reserved only for royal women, it can be found in worried mothers, errant sons, the weak, the foolish, even the insignificant. 

            And that strength is attentive care.  A strength we are maybe most likely to experience and learn from our mothers, grandmothers, teachers, nurses, and caregivers. 

            The strength of attentive care acknowledges the presence of others and the circumstances of their lives.  It is open to the world around us.  Curious about the world and other people.  Concerned for everyone and everything, because “to exist is to receive from all and to give to all.”  This strength participates in God’s creative work.  This strength is salvation.

            I suspect that right now most of us don’t feel very strong?  We had hoped with booster shots and children’s vaccinations and pills for treatment that maybe we were moving into a better phase of this pandemic.  Many of us enjoyed somewhat normal Thanksgivings and Christmases with family and friends, even if we made sure to schedule COVID tests before traveling and visiting.  Yet, here we find ourselves once again canceling events, confused by new recommendations, unable to schedule timely tests, waiting out another surge, and watching as lots of people who’ve been cautious for years finally catch the virus.  And it, of course, comes in the midst of winter—with its bitter cold, gray skies, and long nights. 

Let’s take a deep breath.  Let’s take a moment to grieve more losses. 

            And then, let’s don our strength. 

Let’s be like the royal daughters of Zion who radiate with the glory of God.

Even in the midst of winter and the omicron surge, we can demonstrate attentive care.  For ourselves.  For our bodies and spirits.  For the members of our household.s  For our neighbors and family and friends. 

Three little snippets from this week.  Last Sunday after worship Sebastian and I walked home with plans of shoveling snow before heading inside for lunch.  But as we arrived at our house, our sidewalks had already been cleared by our new next door neighbor who knew the single dad and pastor probably could use some help on a Sunday.

Yesterday I posted on Facebook that three friends had died this week.  And within an hour a casual acquaintance showed up at our front door bearing candy bars.  He said, “I thought you and Sebastian could probably use some chocolate.”

And the third snippet is something Sebastian has begun repeating, “The days are growing longer.” 

This week let us stay open and curious, attentive to everyone we encounter, caring for ourselves and one another, for God is using us to better the world.

Your Light

Your Light

Isaiah 60:1-6, 11; Psalm 67; 2 Timothy 1:5-10; Matthew 2:1-12

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

2 January 2022

            “The ‘star’ serves as [a] physical marker of a new outpouring of heavenly light,” writes William J. Danaher in his commentary on this passage.  The star the magi followed is a symbol, a metaphor of the new revelation God is giving to humanity.  And in this particular story from Matthew, what is revealed is the baby Jesus.  In this child, God is doing something new and marvelous.

            On this Second Sunday after Christmas, we are looking ahead to the Feast of the Epiphany. The traditional day for celebrating the dawning of the revelation of what God is doing with the incarnation of Jesus. 

            I had a church member in Oklahoma City, a retired Methodist minister, who summarized his spiritual practice as every day trying to experience an epiphany and a resurrection.  A pretty good resolution, if you are still looking for one.  An epiphany being a new idea, a new understanding, new wisdom to be gained.  Often experienced with the sudden breaking in of light, realization, attention, or delight.  Like the light bulb going off in the cartoon bubble above our heads. 

            So, for us, Epiphany as a season of worship isn’t just about remembering the stories of the Bible, but also realizing that new understandings, new revelations, are a part of our life as well.  Like the daughters of Jerusalem, God’s light can dawn upon us, radiating with God’s glory.  This Epiphany season, then, we are going to Arise and Shine.

            To help us experience our own spiritual epiphanies, we are going to draw upon a new resource—Wilda Gafney’s A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church.  This new book, which will ultimately be four volumes, curates a new set of weekly readings that center the experiences of women in the Bible, often drawing upon stories and texts left out of the traditional lectionaries.  Gafney has coupled those selections with new translations that are gender-expansive, and she provides her own notes to each week highlighting the themes that connect the readings.

            She begins her Introduction with some important questions:

What does it look like to tell the Good News through the stories of women who are often on the margins of scripture and often set up to represent bad news?  How would a lectionary centering women’s stories, chosen with womanist and feminist commitments in mind, frame the presentation of the scriptures for proclamation and teaching?  How is the story of God told when stories of women’s brutalization and marginalization are moved from the margins of the canon and lectionary and held in the center in tension with stories of biblical heroines and heroes?  More simply, what would it look like if women built a lectionary focusing on women’s stories? 

            I suspect that exploring those questions will yield new insights.  Which is exactly what the Season of Epiphany is supposed to be about. 

            And so today, Gafney presents us some texts that are traditionally connected with Epiphany, while inviting us to see them in a new light.

            The Isaiah passage is quite familiar to you—“Arise, shine, for your light has come.”  Gafney’s innovation is to make this passage explicitly addressed to the daughters of Zion.  The daughters of Zion are a familiar image in the Hebrew prophetic literature, and Zion itself is often represented as feminine.  So Gafney intends to provoke our imaginations in new ways by translating “Arise, daughter; shine, daughter; for your light has come daughter.”  We are invited to ask ourselves—In what ways do our daughters reveal the glory of God?

            The Psalm, which praises God for providing the blessings of the Earth, takes on a new light of maternal care and provision, with an emphasis on fertility—“The earth has brought forth her increase; may God, our own God, give us her blessing.  May God give us her blessing, and may all the ends of the earth stand in awe of her.”

            Not much in changed in the passage from Second Timothy, a passage that has always celebrated grandmother Lois and mother Eunice for passing along the faith to Timothy.  But maybe we see it in a new light when we draw out the connections to Isaiah and the Psalm.  Lois and Eunice are daughters of Zion.  They are agents of God’s glory.  Their faith shines through them.  And, like God, they bear fruit.  They provide, they care, they teach.  They are powerful, and that power is in their love, just like it is for God.

I was drawn anew to the line “I remind you to reignite the gift of God that is within you.”  This idea is a thread connecting all of these Epiphany readings.

So when we get to the familiar Matthew passage about the magi visiting the promised child of Bethlehem, we can see even that with new eyes.  While it’s a story about the baby Jesus, the Christmas stories always invite us to image the ways that the Christ can be born anew in us.  We can read this story as reminding us that no matter where we are born, no matter our circumstances, no matter how dangerous the world we live, we too can be an agent of God’s glory and power.  And if we do approach the story this way, it can reignite the gift of God that is within each of us.   Exactly what we want this Feast of the Epiphany.

The Catholic feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson, in her beautiful book Quest for the Living God describes God in a way that resonates with today’s Psalm—“The holy mystery of God is . . . a living fecundity of relational life that overflows to the world.”  That’s really just a fancy way of saying “God is love,” but I think it’s such a rich and exciting description of God that has the potential to reorder our imaginations.  We are so often tempted to see God as remote and distant, as a bearded old man riding the clouds.  So how might our spirituality and our interactions with the world change if we always thought of God as “a living fecundity of relational life that overflows to the world?” 

And that love and power overflow into us, making us radiate.  Arise and shine for “the glory of God has risen upon you.”  We are filled with divine relational, maternal power.  Power of fertility, blessing, love, and care.  And God is using that power to reorder the world, to do new things.

Elizabeth Johnson writes, “The glory of god is the communion of all things fully alive.”  Isn’t that a wonderful idea!  “The glory of god is the communion of all things fully alive.”  The glory of God, that shines in us and through us, connects us to the flourishing of all living things.

She then elaborates:

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.

            The gift of God is within each one of us.  And God’s love appears in every act of kindness and care we show to one another.

            This Season of Epiphany, we are invited to open our imaginations to new revelations.  To let the light of God awaken within us, and fill us with divine power and glory.  The power of God’s love, which will flow through us with blessing, for ourselves, and the flourishing of all life.