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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. 

Endless Peace

Endless Peace

Isaiah 9:207

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

24 December 2021

            “The best things arrive as if by lightning, in sudden penetrations of light and joy.”

            So writes the philosopher Marth Nussbaum in her magisterial book on the human emotions.  The particular context for that great sentence is a discussion of infanthood.  All of us as infants experience a transformation when we begin to understand that the persons caring for us are real and will return to meet our needs.  Thus, it is for the infant that the best things arrive as sudden penetrations of light and joy. 

            But Nussbaum is quick to point out that those early experiences imprint themselves upon us and help to form and shape us as persons throughout our lives.  And I was drawn to that sentence, because while she might have meant it primarily for infants, it seems to bear some truth even or us adults.  So many good things do arrive as if by sudden penetrations of light and joy.

            And Christmas is always about the sudden bursting forth of light and joy.  As the prophet Isaiah sings, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.”  And with the light comes joy and exultation. 

            Walter Brueggemann, the great UCC bible scholar, writes that the Israel for which Isaiah wrote was “driven to distress, darkness, gloom, and anguish.”  Sounds familiar.  And into this dismal situation Isaiah proclaims that there is “yet another chance in the world.”  We don’t have to resign ourselves to the dismal status quo.  God is at work, in human history, to do something new and different.  Brueggemann writes that the theological point of the passage is God’s capacity “for a newness that is completely fresh.”

            And so there will be light.  A reference to God’s glory.  To the “visible evidence of [God’s] splendor, majesty, and sovereignty” as Brueggemann writes.  Where people had felt God absent, God is going to suddenly seem very present.

            And that experience will evoke “unrestrained celebration and rejoicing.” 

            All together is the “The Great Reversal.”  And God is recruiting us to become agents of the transformation.

            And in the passage all of this is tied to the birth of a child.  For the prophet Isaiah, probably a reference to the birth of a new prince in Jerusalem, a new prince always a vessel of the people’s hopes for a better future.  But the passage took on layers of meaning through our long history.  Eventually a promise of a coming Messiah, God’s agent of restoration.  And then we Christian’s view the passage as a reference to Jesus and the Gospel writers draw upon it in telling their stories, and that’s why it’s one of the scripture lessons for Christmas Eve.

            But there’s the more general meaning that with every birth of every child there is promise and possibility, newness and hope. 

            Every year I remind you of Meister Eckhart’s great statement on Christmas that the whole point isn’t just to celebrate a historical event, that Jesus was born two thousand years ago, but to recognize that the Christ can be born anew in us this year, every year. 

            And so this passage in Isaiah holds out the possibility that something new can be born in us, a sudden penetration of light and joy that leads, as promised, to endless peace.

            The great twentieth century Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote that we humans get something wrong when we focus on mortality as the experience we all have in common.  While we do have death in common, much more important for us right now is that we have birth in common.  Natality is the great shared human experience.  We were all infants, all vulnerable, all of us relied upon the care and attention of others even to survive.  But we lose touch with that and the reality that it remains true for our fragile adult bodies.  And natality is also our experience of newness.  As theologian Elizabeth Gandolfo writes, drawing upon Arendt, “Natality is the condition of human possibility, the foundation of freedom—because we are natals we are free to do new things.”

            So, if we are going to be transformed and experience the promised light, joy, peace, then we’ve got to get back in touch with our natality.  With our vulnerability and possibility. 

            Elizabeth Gandolfo writes that the power of this Christmas story is that God became a baby, experience human natality too.  And our connection with God is in this experience.  She writes, “Humans are united with the loving God in and through their union with the creatable, cradled presence of God in the vulnerable world.”  Incarnation is the embrace of vulnerability.  Therefore, our transformation too is about embracing our vulnerability.

            How do we embrace our vulnerability?  By making peace with the tragic nature of human existence.  In fact, that’s the essence of the endless peace promised to us and that we seek.  She writes, “Peace entails an understanding and an acceptance of the tragic structure of existence, and thus frees us to appreciate the Beauty that continually and infinitely emerges from the process.”

            Our human experiences of the last two years have been an intense pedagogy in human vulnerability, in the tragic nature of our existence, in the fragility of our bodies and our social systems. 

            Which means we’ve also gone through something that had the potential to transform us.  A deeply spiritual experience.  A chance to accept reality and then within that to find those moments of beauty.  To see where, even in the darkness, light and joy suddenly penetrate.

            This Christmas story is our annual reminder of those very truths.  So let us rejoice, that a child is born, that we are renewed and transformed, that God is doing fresh and new things, that our future can be one of endless peace.

In Labor

In Labor

Micah 5:2-5a and Luke 1:39-55

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

19 December 2021

            Six and a half years ago, as I was awaiting the birth of our son Sebastian, like many other American parents of recent decades, I read the bible for parents, otherwise known as What to Expect when You’re Expecting.  Of course I was able to skip over the pregnancy parts and go right to the details about those first few days and weeks.  I must have read the section on the first couple of days at least three times before he was born and then consulted it as a reference more than once in those days.  I remember in those early months reading ahead so I’d be prepared for the next developmental stage.  But also the growing sense over the first few months that I now knew my baby and was more comfortable taking care of him.  And then that weird feeling sometime when he was one or two when I donated the book to the Thrift Shop because I didn’t need it anymore.

When you are expecting your first child you are riven with wonder and anxiety in equal measure.  For all the joy, there’s also fear.  The nervousness that you will make a catastrophic mistake with this fragile infant in your care.  It’s easy to look back on those emotions later with mild amusement, but they were not amusing at all at the time.

And this experience of the expectant first parent so adequately grasps the themes of this Advent season.  We come with expectations of joy and wonder, but also all the fears, uncertainties, and anxieties of our time.

Even Micah the Old Testament prophet knows how effective this metaphor is.  He writes about daughter Zion who is in labor as an image for the people awaiting the coming of the Messiah.  In his commentary Marvin Sweeney writes that “The oracle employs the metaphor of a woman giving birth to express the necessary interval until the rest of the [the] kindred are sufficiently restored so that they might bring about the new era of peace.”  The “necessary interval.”  Peace is coming, justice is coming, joy is coming, but there’s a “necessary interval.”

Of course the images of pregnancy and labor pains pervade the Bible.  God tells the prophet Jeremiah that even before he was formed in the womb, God knew him.  The Psalms rejoice in God’s knitting us together in our mother’s wombs. In Romans Paul uses the image to describe how all of creation is groaning as if in labor to await the revelation of the children of God.  And in Revelation the culmination of history is also likened to a woman giving birth.

In her classic text God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, Phyllis Trible taught us to understand how central are the images of pregnancy and labor to our biblical understanding.  She wrote:

God conceives in the womb; God fashions in the womb; God judges in the womb; God destines in the womb; God brings forth from the womb; God receives out of the womb; and God carries from the womb to gray hairs.  From this uterine perspective, then, Yahweh molds life for individuals and for the nation Israel.  Accordingly, in biblical traditions an organ unique to the female becomes a vehicle pointing to the compassion of God.

            What Phyllis Trible goes on to demonstrate in her classic text is that the Hebrew word for compassion, used repeatedly to describe God in the Old Testament, has its roots in the word for womb.  Divine compassion, divine love, divine care is, thus, like the love of a mother for the child she carries within her own body.  This fundamentally maternal, feminine, uterine image is, then, one of the central themes of our faith.

            And, so, the prophet Micah imagines a woman in labor, awaiting the restoration of Israel’s children so that the age of peace might dawn.  As Phyllis Trible writes, the image of the divine womb is about imagining that “wholeness and well-being may happen.”  Micah’s dream is for an age of well-being in which all of us feel secure, all of us are at peace, when together we shall be fed.

And for Micah that age will be ushered in by the child born in Bethlehem. 

This Advent season we’ve been emphasizing the topsy-turvy nature of the biblical story.  How God works through the unexpected.  Two weeks ago I drew parallels with fairy tales, where frogs turn out to be princes and beautiful women are sometimes witches.  Katie’s play emphasized how those who think they are wise, often are not, and that God’s gifts are found in surprising places.  And today we have the wonderfully comic story of two pregnant women and the children leaping in their wombs, followed by Mary’s song that the mighty will be brought low and the lowly will be lifted up.  The Bible is constantly telling us to be ready for the unexpected.

And Bethlehem is a core symbol of that idea.  For Bethlehem is the home of David.  As Calvin Miller writes in his commentary, “Instead of another boring, bloody generalissimo, there would arise a shepherd king.”

Let’s remind ourselves who David was and why he was so central to the biblical imagination.  He was the shepherd boy, who didn’t look like a potential king.  The last of a series of brothers.  Small even.  From a rural village.  Yet, he was the one of which the story is told that as a boy he had the courage to face the giant and prevail.  He was the one who defied King Saul’s paranoia and violence and defeated Israel’s enemies and established a just kingdom centered in Jerusalem around the worship of God.

Walter Brueggemann has a fascinating little book in which he explores the roles that David played upon the Hebrew imagination.  And the stories about David start as those of the outsiders, the subversives.  Brueggemann writes, “One may then understand this narrative to be hopeful, because it tells, generation after generation, that the marginal ones can become the legitimate holders of power.”  One of the conclusions Brueggemann believes we can draw from the David stories is that “This Yahweh is not committed to the moral civility of entrenched order.”  In other words, the status quo social arrangement doesn’t have some divine imprimatur.  God imagines something different and takes action in history to bring it about.

Now, of course, the story and image of David gets taken over by the power elite eventually.  The rule he established in Jerusalem becomes a hereditary monarchy and that monarchy begins to justify itself by its claims to be Davidic.  And while they might be biological descendants of David, rarely are the kings spiritual descendants of David, for they often seem to represent the complete opposite of the original Davidic idea. 

But, Walter Brueggemann writes, the people will not give up on the ideal of David the underdog, David the unexpected, David the beloved of God.  And so the Hebrew imagination also upholds an idealized David, often used as a counterpoint against whichever descendant of David is currently sitting upon the throne.  This idealized David, according to the Brueggemann, is “the bearer of the promise, the one who keeps the future open against every vexed present.”

Brueggemann goes further, “The very name of David in these traditions asserts that God has dreams and intentions, that history is not closed, and that the person of David is a means for God’s purposes to come to fruition in the future.”

And it seems to be this idea that underlies Micah’s use of David.  Micah, the eighth century prophet, is critical of the regime in Jerusalem.  They are unjust and unrighteous.  Therefore, they are unworthy of any claims they make to be descendants of David. 

And so Micah draws upon the memory of David to subvert the current authorities.  He imagines that just as God picked a shepherd boy from Bethlehem to topple the king and defeat Israel’s enemies and establish a new order, God can do that again.  God will bring forth a new shepherd king who will bring about a new era of peace and security. God still has dreams.  The future still is open.  God’s promises will be fulfilled.

But, right now, we are in the necessary interval as we wait for God to act, to bring all of this about.  Right now, we are in labor.  We are expecting.

So, what can we expect when we are expecting?  Some fear, some uncertainty, some anxiety.  Everything isn’t right yet.  We shouldn’t resign ourselves to the way things are.  We should still be dreaming.  We should imagine different future possibilities.  We should also learn to expect the unexpected.

What else can we expect while we are expecting?  We can expect wonder, hope, beauty, joy, and delight.  And if we believe God is acting in human history to bring about God’s dreams, then we can also expect justice and righteousness and security and peace, because that’s what God has promised us.  That’s who God is at God’s core. 

For God is love.  God is compassionate.  God is like a mother nurturing us within her womb.

Or, as Frederick Bauerschmidt writes in his beautiful little book The Love that Is God, “This divine kindness is the endless sea of love upon which our created being floats.  This is the love that can heal the failures of our human loves.”

So, we wait, in labor, with our hopes and our fears.  But even during this interval, we rest in the deep, nurturing, compassionate, mothering love that is God.

Look & See

Look & See

Philippians 1:6 & Baruch 5:1-9

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

5 December 2021

            Today is one of the rare occasions when even our Protestant lectionary gives us an apocryphal text for the Old Testament lesson.  And so we have this passage from Baruch, a book that claims to be written by the student and scribe of the Prophet Jeremiah, but likely came much later, probably in the century just before Jesus was born.  And it draws upon various images and words from other Old Testament writings, including today’s passage which relies a lot upon the Book of Isaiah.

            And I have paired that with one sentence from this week’s epistle lesson, a reminder that we are not finished, that God is still working on us.  Hear now these ancient words:

Philippians 1:6

I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.

Baruch 5:1-9

Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem,

   and put on for ever the beauty of the glory from God.

Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God;

   put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting;

for God will show your splendour everywhere under heaven.

For God will give you evermore the name,

   ‘Righteous Peace, Godly Glory’.

Arise, O Jerusalem, stand upon the height;

   look towards the east,

and see your children gathered from west and east

   at the word of the Holy One,

   rejoicing that God has remembered them.

For they went out from you on foot,

   led away by their enemies;

but God will bring them back to you,

   carried in glory, as on a royal throne.

For God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low

   and the valleys filled up, to make level ground,

   so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God.

The woods and every fragrant tree

   have shaded Israel at God’s command.

For God will lead Israel with joy,

   in the light of his glory,

   with the mercy and righteousness that come from him.

For the Word of God in scripture,

For the Word of God within us,

For the Word of God among us,

Thanks be to God.

            Of course I am not the resident musical theatre geek.  That would be Katie Miller.  But I am a gay man, so that gives me license to have opinions about musical theatre. 

            The theatre world, the popular music world, actually vast swaths of American arts and culture, have been mourning and eulogizing Stephen Sondheim, who died last week at 91 after a long career as a composer, songwriter, and creator of one Broadway hit after another.  Few Americans have had such a lengthy and rich influence on our culture as Sondheim has.  So it was good this week to read and watch the many tributes of him and his work.

            The Sondheim show I’m most well acquainted with is Into the Woods.  I first saw it as a teenager when the local college performed it.  And I was impacted by its storytelling.  The first act, which is a fun and enthusiastic mish-mash of various fairy tales, concludes with what appears to be the happy ending, only for the second act to descend into complexity, darkness, and ambiguity, raising rich questions about how we tell our stories and, therefore, how we live our lives. 

            In a tribute that appeared this week on the Atlantic’s website, Amy Weiss-Meyer wrote about Into the Woods and Sondheim’s overall approach to endings.  She said, “He never believed in simple happy endings, but he knew exactly how to take advantage of his audience’s yearning for them.”

            Yes, we do long for a happy ending.  We long for everything to turn out right in the end.  That if we work hard and do the right thing, life will be good and blessed.  But, that’s not what always happens.  Sometimes, despite our best efforts, things don’t turn out the way we expected them to.

            Back in the summer when the church staff picked our Advent theme, we began by acknowledging that we had no idea what to expect pandemic-wise come December.  Would we be in the midst of another winter surge or would vaccinations lead to a decline in infection rates or something else? 

            We then realized that this idea of expectations was the right way to orient our focus.  Of course there is the other meaning of “expecting” that has to do with being pregnant, of waiting for a baby to be born.  And the last time we used expectations in our advent theme, in 2015, it was precisely this idea that shaped our worship.  The joy and excitement and risk involved in waiting for new life.  “Wonderful Expectations” was our theme.

            But in 2021 our expectations are more unclear, complex, ambiguous even.  As like to be full of anxiety as they are hope.  Much less that we’ve learned the very hard way the last two years that what we expect might not happen and that we must be somewhat ready for the unexpected.  Though, how can you ever really prepare for what’s unexpected?

            So, we focused our idea for Advent worship around this ambiguity of waiting.

            In her Atlantic tribute, Amy Weiss-Meyer reflected on how Sondheim’s wisdom about endings speaks precisely to the moment we are in in the course of this pandemic.  She wrote,

Sondheim’s work was at its strongest when it lingered in the pain of the dawning realization that no ever after ever lasts long. His music and lyrics looked squarely at life and insisted, gently and eloquently, that of course it was never going to be exactly how we wanted it to be, that messiness and ambiguity were to be expected, and could even be part of the beauty. Voices overlapped, words whizzed by, anxiety and sorrow and joy were written into the very structure of the songs.

            So, maybe this Advent, our spiritual growth will be measured by how much we’ve learned that messiness and ambiguity are to be expected and can even be “part of the beauty?”

            And beauty is precisely what today’s scripture lessons imagines for us.  “Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction” we are instructed by the author.  And instead, we are to clothe ourselves forever in beauty, the beauty of the glory from God.  Wow, just wow!  One of grandest statements in our scriptural tradition, I think.  Definitely, worthy of our attention when we find ourselves in the midst of sorrow and affliction.

            And then the passage continues.  We will be robed in righteousness and crowned with glory.  God’s going to show off our splendor, everywhere.  And we will receive the name of “Righteous Peace, Godly Glory.”

            After these wonderful lines, the author invites her readers to arise and stand and look and see that their children are coming home, rejoicing.  They were carried away in exile by our enemies, and all have suffered, but God has spoken and the reunion is about to occur, just look and see. 

            And the road we children will be traveling home on, instead of being through a difficult wilderness, will be made smooth and plain and easy so that we might travel in safety.  And there will even be fragrant shade trees all along the way.

            If Paul in Philippians declares that God is still working on us, something like this vision from Baruch is the work that God is trying to complete.  God is turning us into our best selves.

            What amazing images.  What joy, what excitement.  Baruch describes about as happy an ending as one could imagine. 

            But dare we imagine that ending?  Can we truly hope for it?  Are we fools if we expect it?

            Frederick Buechner has a profound little book entitled Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale, in which he reveals the ways in which our Christian story has all three types of endings.  It isn’t simply a happy ending; it messier and more ambiguous than that.

            This week I read again through the chapter on how the gospel is like a fairy tale.  The primary point Buechner makes is that in the Gospel, as in most fairy tales, our expectations get messed up.  The noble king might really be the villain.  The beautiful woman might end up being the witch.  The poor and dirty peasant is likely to be the hero of the story.  Or, as the gospel tells it, this child, born in a barn, in a small town on the edge of the great empire, to a teenage mother who was pregnant before she was married.  Among the most marginalized figures one could imagine—that’s the truly human one, the child of God, the savior of the world, the king of kings, the prince of peace, etc., etc., etc.

            Buechner also writes that “Like the fairy-tale world, the world of the Gospel is a world of darkness.”  The Gospel understands that all its visions, hopes, and dreams come in the midst of sorrow and affliction.  In fairy tales the characters learn to see beyond this world and its darkness to the place of beauty and joy.

            And so the spiritual wisdom that Frederick Buechner wants to cultivate within us is that same sense of vision.  He writes,

If with part of ourselves we are men and women of the world and share the sad unbeliefs of the world, with a deeper part still, the part where our best dreams come from, it is as if we were indeed born yesterday, or almost yesterday, because we are also all of us children still.  No matter how forgotten and neglected, there is a child in all of us who is not just willing to believe in the possibility that maybe fairy tales are true after all but who is to some degree in touch with that truth.

            To see the possibilities of beauty and joy and hope is to see like children again, full of amazement and wonder.  And isn’t that part of what we enjoy about the holiday season?  Doesn’t it, at its best, break through our adultness and return to us a sense of magic and splendor and awe?

            We don’t want to give up longing for, hoping for, even expecting the happy ending.  While at the same time we have to learn that messiness and ambiguity are also to be expected and are themselves part of the beauty.  I like the poem by Hafiz that was read earlier, even when we are lonely in the darkness, there is an astonishing light in our own being.  Or as Baruch imagines, beyond the sorrow and affliction are splendor, joy, and peace.

Reconstructing Thanksgiving

Reconstructing Thanksgiving

Matthew 6:25-33

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

21 November 2021

            Six ancestors of mine traveled on the Mayflower and landed at Plymouth Rock in December 1620.  Four of them died in the first winter.  The teenager Elizabeth Tilley lost her parents, aunt, and uncle.  The adolescent John Howland, who arrived as an indentured servant to the colony’s governor John Carver, survived the winter, but his master and mistress did not.  John and Elizabeth later wed and lived long lives in which they produced a large family and gained wealth and status.  I am rightly proud of my ancestors and draw strength from their example of endurance, courage, resilience, and faith. 

            Wanting to know more about these family heroes, I’ve read a lot in the history of the colony.  I’ve gained a better understanding of the theology that animated them, of the great risks they encountered and overcame, of their roles in forming the values of democracy, representative government, and religious freedom. 

            But any reading of that history also informs one of the colony’s relations with the indigenous people and how that relationship was far more complex and ultimately violent and unjust than the Thanksgiving myth we learned as kids presented the relationship as being.  Last week in our worship, we explored those critical questions and deconstructed the myth.  Which leaves us asking: Once we’ve interrogated the myth with these critical perspectives, what value can this 400th anniversary hold for us?  For me it is very personal—how to look at my ancestors with honesty—to value what there is to value, to honor what there is to honor, and to regret what deserves regret and remorse.

            In biblical studies, in the study of how we interpret scripture, there is an understanding that we humans take three broad approaches to scripture, and these somewhat align with developmental stages.  We first approach scripture with naiveté, accepting the stories at face value.  Then, usually beginning in adolescence or young adulthood, we realize that there are critical questions we want to raise about the text.  For some people, of course, these critical questions lead to a deconstruction of belief that results in disbelief.  For others, the asking of critical questions can lead to no longer taking the stories at face value, but continuing to find some value and truth in them.  Those folks then usually advance to the third broad approach, which is called post-critical naiveté.  In this phase, we are aware of the critical problems and continue to interrogate the text with them, but we don’t get stuck in the critical mindset.  We move on to embrace the stories again looking for what truths they tell, what values they hold, what meaning they might have for us. 

            It is this broad interpretative approach that has guided my study of the Thanksgiving story as I prepared for this worship series to mark this 400th anniversary.  We can’t accept the Thanksgiving story that we once did with no exploration of the critical questions.  Our commitments to fairness, justice, honesty, integrity compel us to ask those questions.  But I don’t believe that means rejecting the story completely and disposing of it as having no meaning or value or importance to us.  It is more than a relic.  I believe we can still learn from and be inspired by it.  That’s my goal in today’s sermon.

            To help us in this exercise, I first want to turn to an idea from Hispanic theology.  That might seem a little surprising when we are basically concerned about the interactions between a group of English people and Wampanoag Indians.  But Mexican-American theology is derived from the colonial experience and the mixing of various races and ethnicities and the liminal spaces along national frontiers.  It can enrich our understanding of how theology intersects with culture and identity.

            And in particular I want to look at the concept of fiesta.  This summer I read the book Galilean Journey: The Mexican-American Promise by Virgilio Elizondo.  Elizondo presents fiesta as one of the “symbols of new creation.”  He writes, “The tragedies of [Mexican-American] history have not obliterated laughter and joy, warm friendship and the capacity to love.”  He writes that in their culture there exists a “propensity for celebration.”  This is the fiesta, which he then describes as “the mystical celebration of a complex identity, the mystical affirmation that life is a gift and is worth living.”  And very importantly, this celebration comes in the midst of and acknowledging “the very contradictions that are of the essence of the mystery of human life.” 

            Elizondo then ties the concept of fiesta to some of Christianity’s oldest and deepest values.  He writes,

From the very beginning Christianity saw itself living out a new universal love that would not be limited by cultural or religious boundaries.  This new love came through many cultures but at the same time transcended them by opening them up to the wealth and riches of other cultures.

            Elizondo concludes that this is part of God’s “new creation.”  The new identities formed through the mixing of cultures represents the fullness of the kingdom of God which “bypasses human segregative barriers.”

            For three days in the autumn of 1621 a group of Wampanoag and English sat down to eat together.  They celebrated the harvest, which could only have come about from the Wampanoags helping the colonists learn how to farm in this new land.  They were also honoring an alliance which had formed for their mutual benefit.  They didn’t fully trust one another.  They weren’t close friends.  But, they were practicing the ancient rites of both people to honor one another with hospitality, generosity, and gratefulness. 

            And, so, that celebration we call “the First Thanksgiving” was an opening to a possible future.  It was the beginnings of a fiesta and might have led to more learning from one another and true friendship and cooperation.  And we know that for some English and Wampanoag it did.  There are stories of true friendship, of cooperation, of mutual respect, even if the atrocities of colonial history are far more dominant. 

            So, can we still honor that moment in time as a moment when possibilities crossed boundaries?  When a little of God’s plan for the world broke through fear and racism and skepticism, if just for a moment? 

            One reason I think we can is what Thanksgiving has come to mean across the centuries.  In every community I’ve ministered in, Thanksgiving is the one time a year when people of various faiths and ethnicities generally come to together for worship and fellowship.  Interfaith Thanksgiving services are common throughout this country.  Omaha’s is today at 5 at First Christian Church.  Why are those held this week?  If not because we contemporary Americans see in that past event an opportunity.  Maybe an opportunity that wasn’t fully taken then and still now isn’t fully taken, but we are trying.  And so I love that this is the week every year when I’m most likely to join in worship with Jews and Muslims and even sometimes Indigenous people. 

            This is also the time of year when even the most secular Americans generally focus, at least some of their attention and dollars, on helping other people.  Through this holiday and Christmas, Americans donate food and clothing and money and volunteer their time to help the poor and the hungry and unhoused.  And we have a record of being one of the most generous of nations.  Is that because we’ve spent centuries now practicing Thanksgiving?  Being grateful for our blessings and then from that, sharing those blessings with others?  Surely, the focus of this holiday has had a pedagogical effect upon us as a people.

            So, there is much in the Thanksgiving story that requires critical questions and compels our regret and remorse, but there are also ideals to value.  To pick up and develop and do an even better job of living into them.

            And maybe that’s how we Congregationalists, at our best, have used the story.  I mentioned last week that Margaret Bendroth, the longtime Congregational archivist, has claimed that the way we embraced the Pilgrim story is what helped us to avoid fundamentalism and to become the progressive denomination we have. 

            Bendroth writes that Congregationalists used history to unite them, rather than shared doctrine, biblical interpretation, or denominational structure.  And all along they edited out aspects of that history and embraced others.  The values they embraced from the Pilgrims were adventure, freedom, and an openness to possibilities.  Obviously that romanticizes and maybe even white-washes a group that was rather dogmatic.  But it’s not like those values are absent from the Pilgrim story, they are present. 

            She writes that Congregationalists at their best learned to study and reflect on their history and to ask questions about it.  Which led to living with ambiguity and embracing the new.  That enabled Congregationalists to be more open to liberal interpretations of scripture when those arose and to embrace modern advances more easily. 

            She writes that the focus on history also meant that Congregationalists understood that there’s wasn’t only one story, one perspective.  That there were others.  Which led to Congregationalists being at the forefront of ecumenical developments. 

            And in recent decades the UCC has been open about embracing the moral complexity of its past and trying to learn from it in order to create a more just world and a better future.  Bendroth concludes her book by writing:

The past is as real and as consistently challenging as the people who created it, and its demands are not easily satisfied.  The most important work of any religious tradition is to recognize—sometimes to celebrate and other times to fiercely mourn—its enduring power.

            What, then, does this 400th anniversary mean for us? 

            It’s a chance to examine our story, to ask questions about it, to realize the ways it has shaped us for good and bad.  And to then learn from it. 

            To learn what was wrong.  What we don’t want to embrace.  What we don’t want to follow.  What we want to repent for.

            But also to learn what was of value.  What can inspire us and make us better.

            To learn what opportunities and possibilities it did present.  And how we can emulate those in our time and our place.  And do better.

            So, we need a fiesta—a celebration, that crosses the boundaries of identity and culture, and helps to imagine and embody the kingdom of God. 

            400 years after that meal between the Pilgrims and Wampanoag, we can do that.  And what better holiday than this one?  Happy Thanksgiving.

Deconstructing Thanksgiving

Deconstructing Thanksgiving

Joel 2:21-17

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

14 November 2021

            This autumn marks the 400th anniversary of the event that later was called “The First Thanksgiving”—the day of feasting when a group of Wampanoag warriors joined with the Plymouth Pilgrims to eat their harvest.

            This event has not only taken on a mythic role in the wider American consciousness, it is a significant story to us as Congregationalists, who are among the direct religious descendants of those Pilgrims.  This congregation normally holds a huge Thanksgiving dinner, a tradition we can date to at least the late 19th century, with some stops and starts.  While the pandemic has prevented us from once again holding the turkey dinner, we do look forward to hopefully gathering again in a crowded parlor next year to celebrate family and friends and give thanks to God in an event that harkens back in some ways to that meal in the autumn of 1621. 

            But this is 2021, and we have learned that some parts of our history don’t sit as comfortably with us as they once did.  What critical questions should we ask about that history and how it’s been used?  What meaning should this event hold for us now, as we want to honor our heritage but address a history of colonialism, conquest, and racism? 

            So, we are not going to simply celebrate the 400th anniversary of that meal, but intentionally explore the difficult questions and look for what approach is best for us in 2021.  This week, then, I’ll be preaching on the theme “Deconstructing Thanksgiving” and next Sunday “Reconstructing Thanksgiving.”

            Let’s begin with Pilgrim Edward Winslow’s description of that harvest celebration at Plymouth Colony:

Our harvest being collected our governor sent four men fowling together so we might rejoice together in a more special way after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. In just one day the hunters killed as much fowl as if their hunting party had been larger. The fowl fed the company almost a week at which time, among other recreations, we drilled with our fire arms. Many of the Indians joined us including Massasoit, the greatest king, and some ninety of his men. We all entertained and feasted together for three days. The Indians went out and killed five deer which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, the captain, and others. And although it is not always as plentiful as it was at that time, yet by the goodness of God we are so far from want that we often wish you could partake of our plenty.

            The Pilgrims disembarked on December 22, 1620 in the midst of a harsh New England winter.  Disease, starvation, and exposure to the cold killed half of them that winter.  In the familiar parts of the story, that spring they finally made direct contact with the local Wampanoag Indians and were helped by Samoset and Squanto, who we more appropriately should call by his name Tisquantum, and the local paramount sachem Ousamequin, whom we are more likely to recognize as Massosoit, which was actually his title and not his name. 

            The Wampanoags formed a mutual-self-defense alliance with the Pilgrims and then taught them how to survive—where to hunt and fish and how to grow their crops.  And so at the end of the growing season, the Pilgrims did as so many human societies have done throughout history, and held a harvest celebration.

            But is this event properly called “The First Thanksgiving?”  Not really.  For one thing, the Pilgrims themselves did not call it a “day of thanksgiving.”  When the Pilgrims did hold days of thanksgiving those were days of fasting, prayer, and spiritual discipline, usually to address an immediate need or concern in the life of the community.  Our Pilgrim ancestors wouldn’t recognize what we do on the fourth Thursday in November as a day of thanksgiving, but would recognize it as a harvest celebration.

            Only about a century later were days of Thanksgiving and harvest celebrations combined in some of the colonies.  The first national day of Thanksgiving was declared by President George Washington, though some in Congress at the time complained that this was executive overreach and something best left to the states. 

            The tradition of various local communities and states holding celebrations developed through the 19th century, but with little connection to the Pilgrims.  The holiday for honoring the Pilgrims was Forefather’s Day, which fell on December 22 and marked the landing on Plymouth Rock. 

            In 1827, magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale began advocating for a national day of Thanksgiving.  Her efforts eventually resulted in Abraham Lincoln declaring the second national day of Thanksgiving during the Civil War.  After that time it became a regular event.  FDR tried to move the date from the fourth Thursday in November to the third, causing great controversy.  It was only in the mid-twentieth century that Congress officially made the fourth Thursday in November a permanent federal holiday. 

            The connection of this day with the Pilgrims and their meal became more prominent around the Pilgrim anniversary year of 1870, and Congregational churches played an important role in that development.  There’s an insightful book entitled The Last Puritans by Margaret Bendroth, who was the longtime archivist of the Congregationalist archives.  That book discusses how Congregationalists have used our history, and particularly stories about the Pilgrims to shape our identity and mission.

            Because Congregationalists were a non-creedal people, they had no core doctrine to unite them.  Because they believed in the freedom of local churches and individual Christians, they did not have a tightly developed denominational structure.  So, what drew them together and kept them united was a shared origin story, from which they derived identity and mission.  She writes that as Congregationalism moved out of its New England home into the vast stretches of this continent in the late nineteenth century and began to compete more in new towns and cities with various denominations, that Congregationalists drew upon their Pilgrim heritage in a form of branding, to identify who they were as distinct from Presbyterians and Baptists and such. 

            She also ties these developments with the trauma of the Civil War.  She writes, “The post-Civil War decades were a time of general yearning for public ceremonies of memory, especially in the wake of epic personal loss on both sides of the conflict.”  We who have experienced this devastating pandemic recognize that yearning.

            Reading her book, you realize why Congregationalists in early Omaha, Nebraska, out here on the frontier, invested so much in celebrating an annual Thanksgiving dinner. 

            Margaret Bendroth also argues that our focus on the Pilgrim past helped us to avoid fundamentalism and turned us into the progressive denomination we’ve become, but I’ll talk about that in next week’s sermon.

            So, a study of the history reveals that the conventional understanding of this holiday and its ties to the Pilgrim past, are not exactly what we thought it was.  What we do on the fourth Thursday of November is not really a direct descendant of what the Pilgrims did in 1621-- the history is more complicated than that. 

            And so far we’ve only discussed the white European descendant aspects of the history.  There is, of course, far more to the story.  There is the perspective of the Wampanoags who joined in the harvest meal. 

            Beginning in the 1970’s, some Native Americans began recognizing the Fourth Thursday of November as a Day of Mourning.  And in subsequent decades more attention has been paid to understanding their story and the impacts upon them of the Thanksgiving myth many of us learned and enacted in grade school. 

One of the simplest points to grasp is how often around this time of year school kids make pilgrim hats and Indian headdresses to wear.  The Indian headdresses are usually a circle of brown construction paper to which was attached a feather shaped piece of construction paper that the kids color.  But, these types of headdresses were worn by Plains Indians and are not remotely authentic to the headdresses of the indigenous people of New England.  In this simple way authentic Wampanoag culture gets erased from our collective memory.

So often, the way the story was told and used, has represented a form of white supremacy.  The local tribes helped the Pilgrims, gave them their land, and then disappeared.  Of course it was always more complicated than that, but so many children’s story books do present something like that.

In our Facebook group this week I posted a Washington Post article that briefly summarizes some of the Wampanoag perspective.  If you want to delve further, I recommend the book This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving by David J. Silverman.

New England’s indigenous people had been dealing with Europeans for a century.  They developed sophisticated trading relationships with them, but also learned to mistrust them.  The Europeans were known to attack at the slightest misunderstanding.  Even worse, they had a history of enslaving people.  Even Tisquantum, whom most of us know as Squanto, had been abducted decades before when he went to trade with a ship.  They captured him and sold him into slavery, and he spent years endeavoring to return to his homeland.  In the process he learned English and European ways and thus could facilitate the relationships between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags.  We are mistaken if we see his role as merely being generous and hospitable, for deep trauma and suspicion were clearly also part of Tisquantum’s motives.

The Europeans also brought new diseases.  From 1616-1619 a plague spread throughout the region wiping out whole villages.  The Wampanoag called it The Great Dying.  The area where the Pilgrims settled was vacant because Patuxet, the village that once stood there, had been destroyed in the plague years. 

An interesting point I learned in studying for this sermon—it wasn’t just the lack of contact with other humans that made the indigenous people susceptible to illnesses.  It was also their clean living.  They had existed for millennia with clear air and water, eating healthy, nutritious meals, and without the forms of agriculture and urban filth that brought most Europeans in contact with the great diseases that plague humanity.  The paradox was that the cleaner, healthier living of the indigenous people meant they didn’t have the immunities for the diseases the less healthy Europeans brought.

Why did Ousamequin and the Wampanoag welcome the Pilgrims?  According to David Silverman, we should try to understand his motive.  Many of his people had been killed by disease.  His power was diminished.  He and his people were a sitting target for rival groups, particularly the Narragansetts.  Along came a small and weak group of English people and Ousamequin gambled that he could develop a relationship that would be of mutual benefit.  The Plymouth colony would be a connection to European trading goods.  It would provide access to European medicine.  And the colonists had guns that would help in any battles with his rivals.  As David Silverman points out, it wasn’t friendliness that motivated Ousamequin, but desperation.

Ousamequin’s decision was not embraced, even by all the Wampanoag.  In the years that followed sachems who disagreed with him would at times try to unseat him.  Not all of them treated the Pilgrims as friends, many treated them as threats.  The Cape Wampanoags in particular had a lasting negative impression of the Pilgrims because they had stolen the native’s corn and desecrated their burial grounds. 

So, the relationship was more political and self-interested than the history we may have learned as kids.  Even the full story of that harvest dinner isn’t what we might have thought.  The Pilgrims didn’t initially invite the Wampanoags to join them.  In the midst of their celebrations the Pilgrims started firing weapons.  Because of their mutual defense agreement, Ousamequin and ninety warriors rushed to Plymouth thinking they were coming to a battle.  Only when all these armed warriors showed up, did the Pilgrims invite them to join the dinner and the natives went and hunted deer to add to the meal.

How did Ousamequin’s decision play out over time?  It did help him during his lifetime to remain paramount sachem and to hold off rivals.  It increased his wealth and power.  But with the longer term perspective we can only conclude it was a mistake.  Even Ousamequin’s sons Wamsutta and Pumetacom regretted their father’s decision.  As David Silverman writes, “Ingratitude was an especially repugnant quality in the tightly knit, kin-based Indian world in which people were expected to give without restraint and show appreciation to those who did.”  And over time the settlers not only failed to show gratitude to Ousamequin for saving them and protecting them, the settlers became demanding and aggressive and violent.  And so Ousamequin’s son Pumetacom, known to American history as Philip, went to war against the one-time allies in 1675 in what we know as King Philip’s War, which resulted in the destruction and enslavement of many Wampanoag’s.

But the Wampanoags were never eliminated.  The people remained, resilient and strong, particularly on the Cape and on Martha’s Vineyard and there has been a revival of their cultural life in recent decades and a growing focus on telling their story.

And so we ask the critical questions and recognize that the history is more complicated than many of us learned.  Which leaves us asking: Once we’ve interrogated the myth with these critical perspectives, what value can this 400th anniversary hold for us?  Next Sunday we will continue this exploration. 

Today, I want to give the final word to Wampanoag elder Ramona Peters, “Gratitude is the most powerful Thanksgiving story, from my perspective as a Wampanoag.  When young children grasp gratitude in a real way, beyond ritual, our country will be greater.”



Zechariah 8:1-13

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

25 July 2021

            Last week when Stephen and I were selecting hymns for this Sunday, I mentioned that a good fit for this text from Zechariah would be the hymn “Marching to Zion.”  But then I couldn’t find it in either of our hymnals.  Of course it was under a different name in the New Century Hymnal—our opening hymn today, “Come, We Who Love God’s Name.” 

            Now, if you look, there are actually two settings of this hymn in our hymnal.  The one we sang, number 379 set to the tune St. Thomas and also number 382 set to the tune Marching to Zion.  I grew up with the second setting.  Stephen the first setting.  That we sang Stephen’s preferred setting may say something about our professional relationship.

            While we were selecting the hymns I sang the other version for him—“Don’t know it at all,” he said.  “Must be a regional thing.” 

            I happened to notice that the setting I’m used to is in the Disciples of Christ Chalice Hymnal which describes it as “lively” and “rhythmic” and “clearly for joyous Christians.”  So, I wish Stephen were here today so I could tell him that it’s not a regional thing.  One setting is for joyous Christians and the other setting is for the other type.

            Joy is what the prophet Zechariah wants to evoke.  His oracle celebrates with wonderful images the return of the people to life and land after the traumas of the exile.  There are images of fertility and agricultural plenty, of peace and justice, of prosperity and social strength.  I particularly enjoy the elderly people sitting in the streets watching the children play.  He imagines a time when no one will experience fear.

            Last year, only a few weeks into the pandemic, the great UCC bible scholar Walter Brueggemann published a book entitled Virus as a Summons to Faith in which he tried to draw upon the insights of the Old Testament to guide us in our moment of crisis.  In the foreword he wrote that “Humankind faces a pressing and daunting learning challenge.  We are called to learn how to peaceably relinquish the old world and how to imaginatively give birth to a new world in which all life can flourish.”

            He wrote about how catastrophes, particularly plagues, had impacted the writers of the Old Testament.  From the prophet Jeremiah he drew lessons on how to wait “until the dancing begins again.”  And from Isaiah about how to prepare for God’s new thing.  Brueggemann advised focusing on prayer and authored prayers to fit the moment.  He held out hope that despite the catastrophe, we might learn lessons about how to live better with one another and with creation.

            Zechariah’s vision of the joyful and peaceful remnant resonates with this hope we’ve had since the beginning of the pandemic, that we will once again return to abundant life together.

            Yet, I can’t quite preach this text as I had planned to: we stand at a strange moment in this pandemic.  Many are vaccinated and have enjoyed returning to relatively normal life this summer.  As a society, we’ve looked forward to when enough people would be vaccinated and our kids will be, so that we could definitively move beyond the immediate crisis and into the longed-for future. 

            The efficacy of these vaccines and the speed of their development were such marvels.  Some people viewed getting the shot as a ticket to freedom and a return to life.  For others it is the fulfilment of a moral obligation, a way to demonstrate love of neighbor, a patriotic duty, or a civic good.  To me, it has been the excitement and adventure of being a part of one of the greatest achievements in the history of the human species. 

            Yet, just on the verge of fulfilling our desires for restoration, the news grows dim again.  Already this week I saw people canceling and postponing events, yet again.  Some people began wearing their masks again.  Parents were discussing what to do about kids and school this autumn.  And now there’s the added frustration—do we have to go backwards when we were so close to victory?

            So, Zechariah’s vision of the future remains that—a vision of the future.  We aren’t quite yet at the joyful restoration of the remnant, when we no longer need to fear.

            This week, while remote working from Lake Okoboji, I read the book Radical Sacrifice by the English literary critic Terry Eagleton.  The book is about the concept of sacrifice and it’s meaning in the contemporary world, but along the way, he explores a handful of other, related topics.  For instance, in a discussion of love, he writes, “Mutual love has something of the contagiousness of mutual laughter, as the other’s delighted response serves only to enhance one’s own.”

            I thought about my excitement last January when I got my first shot.  It was like a year’s worth of anxiety and fear physically lifted off of my shoulders.  I did a lot of laughing.  And dancing.  And I went for a walk along the Field Club Trail listening to music by the Scissor Sisters and I couldn’t stop smiling.  Joy and love and excitement are contagious.

            From this discussion of love, Terry Eagleton moves on to the topic of giving and generosity.  He writes, “It is of the nature of God to be prodigal, ecstatic, overbrimming, one for whom excess is no more than the norm.”  He writes about how God’s squandering of God’s self creates a different and deeper economy. 

            Zechariah’s vision is about that.  Abundance, peace, joy, justice, faithfulness, prosperity, and playfulness.  God’s dream for God’s people is one of wild generosity, where we all get to join together in something new and wonderful.

            Eagleton goes on to describe how when we give each other a gift, we make meaning in the process.  We take some object and invest it with purpose and intention and meaning when we give it to someone else.

            That made me think of one of the gifts in my office.  It was given to me by some church members in Oklahoma City when I was leaving that congregation to come here eleven years ago.  This couple traveled around Oklahoma City and collected dirt in various shades of red and layered them in a jar so that I could take a little bit of Oklahoma with me.  In that way, they invested dirt with meaning.  And I can look at this jar with fondness and appreciation.  Love and joy are contagious.

            Zechariah encourages us to be strong, not to fear, to be faithful, for God is still at work, drawing us through this period of crisis, with a joyful and peaceful vision of what is yet to come.

            At the close of today’s worship we will sing the hymn “O Day of God, Draw Near.”  The biblical Day of the Lord brings judgement, but also peace and light.  We will sing, “Bring to our troubled minds, uncertain and afraid, the quiet of a steadfast faith, calm of a call obeyed.”

            And in the hymn we will sing in a minute, “O Holy City, Seen of John,” pay attention particularly to that third verse, “Give us, O God, the strength to build the city that has stayed, too long a dream, whose laws are love, whose ways are your own ways.”

            May we travel through our time of plague and crisis with vision, courage, and most importantly, joy.  Let us not become discouraged, so close to our goals.  Let us be faithful to the exciting and adventurous call of God to create a new and better world.



Zechariah 1:1-17

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

18 July 2021

            This summer our worship theme has been “Restore.”  After all the events of the last year and a half, we—as individuals, families, a congregation, and the wider society—are in a period of restoration and transformation.  And to aid us in our spiritual reflection upon this experience, we’ve turned to the stories of the ancient Judeans as they returned from exile in Babylon and rebuilt their society and culture. 

            Today we hear from the prophet Zechariah, who along with the prophet Haggai, encouraged the people in the building of the Temple.  Hear, now, the word of the Lord:

Zechariah 1:1-17

In the eighth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah son of Berechiah son of Iddo, saying: The Lord was very angry with your ancestors.  Therefore say to them, Thus says the Lord of hosts: Return to me . . . and I will return to you . . .  Do not be like your ancestors, to whom the former prophets proclaimed, “Return from your evil ways and from your evil deeds.”  But they did not hear or heed me.  Your ancestors, where are they?  And the prophets, do they live forever?  But my words and my statutes, which I commanded my servants the prophets, did they not overtake your ancestors?  

So they repented and said, “The Lord of hosts has dealt with us according to our ways and deeds, just as God planned to do.”

On the twenty-fourth day of the eleventh month, the month of Shebat, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah: In the night I saw a man riding on a red horse!  He was standing among the myrtle trees in the glen; and behind him were red, sorrel, and white horses.  Then I said, “What are these, my lord?”  The angel who talked with me said to me, “I will show you what they are.”  So the man who was standing among the myrtle trees answered, “They are those whom the Lord has sent to patrol the earth.”  Then they spoke to the angel of the Lord who was standing among the myrtle trees, “We have patrolled the earth, and lo, the whole earth remains at peace.”  Then the angel of the Lord said, “O Lord of hosts, how long will you withhold mercy from Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, with which you have been angry these seventy years?”  Then the Lord replied with gracious and comforting words to the angel who talked with me.  . . .  Proclaim this message: Thus says the Lord of hosts; I am very jealous for Jerusalem and for Zion.  And I am extremely angry with the nations that are at ease; for while I was only a little angry, they made the disaster worse.  Therefore, thus says the Lord, I have returned to Jerusalem with compassion; my house shall be built in it, says the Lord of hosts, and the measuring line shall be stretched out over Jerusalem.  Proclaim further: Thus says the Lord of hosts: My cities shall again overflow with prosperity; the Lord will again comfort Zion and again choose Jerusalem.

For the Word of God in scripture,

For the Word of God within us,

For the Word of God among us,

Thanks be to God.

            Back in 2012, the youth group was on a mission trip to the Pine Ridge Reservation.  Pat Lange, Emma Ferber, John Hodgson, and myself were the adult sponsors.  One day that week, our group went for lunch at Bette’s Kitchen, near Manderson, where we sat under the arbor and enjoyed our meal while looking out at the beautiful hills. 

            Bette, the owner of the restaurant, is a descendant of the Lakota holy man Black Elk.  I asked our guide if this was in fact Black Elk’s land, as I knew he had lived near Manderson.  The guide said that it was, and that Black Elk’s cabin still stood downhill from where we were sitting, in a grove of trees.  He pointed out the trail and invited me and others to walk down there.  A small handful of us did.

            When I moved here to Omaha eleven years ago, Bud Cassiday recommended that I read Black Elk Speaks by John Neihardt.  When I did, I was immediately struck by its power, beauty, and wisdom.  I’ve been something of a Black Elk fan ever since.  So I jumped at the chance to see the holy man’s cabin.

            The cabin was old and not maintained.  Inside, the walls were covered with graffiti.  I wish it were a preserved historical site like the homes of so many prominent persons.  Nonetheless, I enjoyed visiting the cabin, taking in the view, and imagining the wise old man sharing his vision in this very spot.

            Black Elk’s Great Vision began with two men coming from the clouds carrying long spears from which lightning flashed.  He is summoned on a journey to meet the Grandfathers who are the Powers of the World.  They tell him that he will receive power from the thunder beings and that they shall take him to the center of the world where he will see, and the sun will shine, and he will understand. 

On his journey, Black Elk defeats drought, who is a blue giant.  This victory brings rain upon the earth.  Black Elk plunges his red lightning stick into the ground and it becomes a tree of life in the center of the nation's hoop, bringing peace and abundance to the people.  The people chant and shout with joy.

Near the end of his great vision, he has this moment of epiphany:

And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being.  And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father.  And I saw that it was holy.

This is a great, holy, eschatological vision that we have not yet achieved—many hoops making one circle, humanity living in solidarity with creation, everyone being sheltered and provided for.

In their commentary on the book of the Hebrew prophet Zechariah, Carol and Eric Meyers write,

The prophet ‘sees’ in the objects or persons around him meanings that transcend the normal qualities of those figures.  The prophet’s perception of reality is extraordinary.  The conventional properties of realia are transformed.

            Because the prophet sees things that others don’t, the prophet’s role is “to clarify in visions and oracles the world about him and to articulate a hopeful vision of the future.”

            Through new perception and insight, the prophet makes sense of the world and inspires future possibilities.  That’s what people need after a trauma, during a time of restoration.  This new perception is what Black Elk offers to the Lakota, what Zechariah offered to the Hebrew exiles, and what we in our own way require now in our own season of restoration.

            Zechariah’s visions may, when we initially read them, sound strange to us.  But that strangeness can evoke our sense of wonder, leading us to search for deeper understanding.  What do all these images mean?  Well, we honestly lack the ability to see and understand without a little expert guidance, so I’m thankful for the scholars who help us to figure things out.  

            Maybe the first aspect of the vision we notice is the nighttime setting.  It’s dark and the foliage would make it even darker.  Carol and Eric Meyers, in their commentary, point out that myrtles are “dense shade-creating shrubbery.”  This is a “setting of darkness,” they write, in which it should be very difficult, if not impossible, to make out the color of horses or to see clearly what’s happening.  Yet, Zechariah does see.  That’s the significant thing—he does see in the dark. 

            Sometimes our life situations are too dark and difficult for us to see.  We wonder where God is?  If we can ever hope or love or rejoice again?  If there is any path forward?  If anything makes sense anymore? 

            In those moments we need the help of others who can see for us and who can help us to gain our own insight and perception.  There, even in the darkness, is something to draw our attention, that can help us move forward, that can restore us.

            So the first important lesson from the vision is gaining the ability to see in the dark.  But what is it that Zechariah sees?  First, a glen of myrtle trees.  In his commentary on this vision, Marvin Sweeney draws out the importance of the myrtle.  He writes that “Myrtles play a role in ancient mythologies” because of “their evergreen character.”  People believed that “their long roots reach to the depths of the subterranean waters.” 

            So, myrtles go deep, into the very depths of creation, where creation itself first overcame chaos. 

            After a time of trauma, when we are healing, we too must go deep into ourselves.  The healing begins by restoring our sense of self, by reconnecting with what’s important to us, by tapping into that higher power that helps us to transcend our current situation.

            There’s more to the myrtles.  They were also used in the Jewish festival of Tabernacles as part of the ritual.  Now, Tabernacles was the festival during which Solomon first dedicated the Temple and during which the restorers of Zechariah’s time will also rededicated their Temple.  During these religious celebrations, branches of the myrtle tree are used “to symbolize the rebirth of creation.” 

            So, according to Marvin Sweeney, the myrtles in Zechariah’s vision suggest going to the “center of creation and the cosmos” in order to experience “rebirth and new creation.”

            And then there are the horses Zechariah sees in his vision, inside the myrtle glen.  Horses who patrol the earth.  Carol and Eric Meyers write that “the horses with their riders go everywhere, see everything that needs to be seen.”  Horses, in the ancient world also conveyed the idea of speed.  That there are three horses represents totality.  So, the idea contained in this image is that God goes everywhere, is watching everything, sees all.  God has plans for the entire world.  The work that the Judeans are doing rebuilding the Temple is only a part of something much bigger than they realize.

            And what is God’s plan for the world? 

            Well, something that may unsettle us in the Book of Zechariah are the references to God’s anger.  When the Judeans were exiled in Babylon, they came to understand their history in this way—they had been disobedient and sinned, breaking the covenant, and that God had brought calamity upon them.  Now, we don’t usually share their interpretation of trauma and suffering, but we do understand how this is a narrative that a traumatized people might use in order to cope with their circumstances. 

            Let’s sit with their explanation for a moment to better understand it.  What did they think God was angry about?  What had their ancestors failed to do?  What was the disobedience that brought about the calamity?

            Well, for Zechariah, as it was for Amos, Micah, Isaiah, and so many of his predecessor prophets, God’s anger was directed at injustice.  In chapter seven of Zechariah, we read:

Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.

            Breaking these rules is what angered God.  And what did God do?  First God sent prophets to appeal to the people and call them to change.  But when the people still didn’t listen, God acted to end the injustice.

            So, if we sit a while with the ancient Judean view of God’s anger, we might find that it does resonate with us.  We too want God to act against injustice.  We too want a world where there is no oppression, where truth and kindness and mercy are the order of the day.  Right?

            But, Zechariah doesn’t stop there.  In his nighttime vision there’s another vital piece.  God’s no longer angry; God is compassionate. 

So, even if these exiles used God’s anger to explain what had happened to them, they are by this time beginning to move beyond that explanation to a different understanding.  In their new understanding God is compassionate and God is comforting the people.

            The great bible scholar Phyllis Trible in her classic work God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, helped us all to understand that the Hebrew word for compassion originates in how a mother nurtures her baby.  So, when Zechariah declares that a compassionate God is comforting the people, you should picture God as divine mother, soothing her crying child. 

            So, now that we’ve followed some expert help, we can see and understand better.   Zechariah’s vision, when we initially read it, seemed strange to us.  But when we open our eyes, when we develop the ability to see, what is revealed is a wonderful vision of hope, healing, and future possibilities. 

            The vision began in darkness and rises up into comfort.  Here’s a lesson for us: When we are troubled, hurt, and traumatized, we can’t see the path forward, the world does not make sense, we are on the verge of losing our hope—

            But God is working in the darkness and the depths, seeing all, and transforming all, in order to bring about justice, compassion, and comfort.

            The theologian Serene Jones, in her writing on trauma, states that the ability to wonder is “the complete opposite of the truncated, shut-down systems of perception that traumatic violence breeds in its victims.” 

            Zechariah and Black Elk both teach us to wonder at the strange things they see.  Wondering breaks us open to new possibilities, which is part of healing and restoration.  Serene Jones writes, “Wondering is the simple capacity to behold the world around (and within you), to be awed by its mystery, to be made curious by its difference, and to marvel at its compelling form.”

            So, even when it’s dark, let’s look at what is happening around us, and be open to what it might teach.